SEFS Alumnus Aaron Johnston Awarded Mendenhall Fellowship

Aaron Johnston, who earned his Ph.D. from SEFS in spring 2013, was recently awarded a prestigious, two-year postdoctoral research position with the U.S Geological Survey’s Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program! Johnston studied competition between eastern and western gray squirrels in the Puget Sound lowlands for his dissertation (working with Professor Emeritus Steve West), and he will be moving to Bozeman, Mont., after the winter holidays to begin the fellowship.

Aaron Johnston

Aaron Johnston’s fellowship will include two field seasons, and he’ll be expected to produce several publications from the research.

Selected through a competitive proposal process, Mendenhall Fellows help USGS staff conduct concentrated research around a number of important areas. Johnston’s proposal, “Extinction dynamics and microrefugia of the American pika,” will pair him with Dr. Erik Beever in Bozeman to explore the effects of climate change on pikas in the Cascades and Northern Rockies, though he hasn’t finalized his study area yet. He’ll have a research budget and be able to bring on a couple assistants to help with the project.

American pikas (Ochotona princeps) are a smaller relative of rabbits and hares. They’re an herbivorous alpine species that spread south with the last ice age, and now they’re holding on in high-altitude mountain areas in western North America. Their dependence on colder temperatures and preferred habitat—talus fields and rock piles at or above the tree line—has generally restricted their range to “sky islands” at the tops of mountains, where movement from one region to another can’t happen quickly, if at all. As a result, a warming climate threatens to shrink or eliminate the habitable range of pikas in the coming decades, and some estimates already suggest that 40 percent of American pikas in the Great Basin have disappeared in the last century, with the remaining populations retreating to even higher elevations.

Aaron Johnston

With their habitat shrinking as the climate warms, American pikas are retreating to higher elevations on the “sky islands” of mountaintops.

Johnston says there are competing hypotheses about why this large-scale extinction is occurring. One widely supported theory revolves around the fact that pikas can’t survive prolonged exposure to high temperatures (more than a couple hours above 80 degrees, in fact, can kill them). Yet in a few regions, where temperatures far exceed that maximum—such as Craters of the Moon and Lava Beds national monuments—some pika populations have found a way to survive using microrefugia to escape the heat. Other hypotheses focus on phenology, and whether changing temperatures will reduce available vegetation for pikas, or if warmer winters will reduce available snowpack for insulation and expose pikas to extreme cold.

To address these questions and help design effective conservation strategies, Johnston’s project will involve modeling and mapping pika habitat topography using LiDAR. He’s been working in Professor Monika Moskal’s Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Lab, and he sees powerful applications of LiDAR for wildlife management. “I think it’s a really exciting new technology that has enormous potential we’re just starting to realize,” says Johnston.

Project Summary
The objectives of this study are to:

1. Develop broad-scale maps of talus at high-resolution through fusion of LiDAR and multispectral imagery;
2. Develop predictor variables for untested hypotheses about substrate, snowpack and phenology;
3. Evaluate regional variation in extinction mechanisms by incorporating new data on extirpations outside of the Great Basin; and
4. Evaluate differences in habitat and connectivity maps created by models with and without microclimate and microhabitat variables.

This project will use limited field work to characterize substrate at selected sites for development of talus maps, and supplement existing data on pika persistence at historical sites of occurrence. Results of this study will increase understanding of pika responses to climate change, inform conservation strategies, and provide map products widely applicable to many research areas, including wildlife ecology, plant ecology, geomorphology, hazard assessment and hydrology.

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Congratulations, Aaron, and good luck with this tremendous opportunity!

Photo of Johnston © Aaron Johnston; photo of pika © Justin Johnsen.

Alumni Spotlight: Christina Galitsky

Christina Galitsky

After nearly a decade as an engineer, Galitsky changed course and headed to graduate school to study wildlife ecology at SEFS.

“Ecology is so much harder than engineering, despite what the majority of the population might think,” says Christina Galitsky, who recently earned a Master of Science from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). She would know: After nearly a decade as an engineer, Galitsky moved to Seattle in 2009 to begin graduate study in wildlife ecology—trading factories for field work, and lab goggles for binoculars.

What prompted this turnabout was many years in the making, and it started with a simple desire to feel more energized by her work.

Originally from Allentown, Pa., Galitsky moved to California in 1996 to attend graduate school at Berkeley. She had always excelled at math and science and felt it was a natural fit to study chemical engineering. After school, she spent the next nine years as a full-time engineer, first with an environmental consulting firm in Oakland and then with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Her work involved solving basic engineering problems for some of the poorest people in the world. No question, she says, the projects were immensely important and rewarding. Yet she got to a point where she’d be in a meeting and watch her colleagues be giddy and raving about a tiny engineering tweak, like getting a minute increase in efficiency, and she realized she wanted to share that same pulse of excitement with her job someday—and it wasn’t going to happen as an engineer.

Christina Galitsky

In her free time, Galitsky is an accomplished rock climber, mountaineer, snowboarder and lover of all things outdoors.

Galitsky decided to take some time off work to figure out her next move. She spent a summer interning with the U.S. Geological Survey on the Olympic Peninsula and researched graduate programs and professors studying wildlife biology, conservation and related areas.

She soon discovered SEFS and was particularly attracted to the work Professor Josh Lawler was doing with climate change and landscape ecology. She wanted to be involved in research that would directly influence policy or on-the-ground management, and when she met Lawler and visited campus, she felt a strong connection. “At first it was his research, and then our conversations,” she says. “I really liked his lab and the way he has his students weigh in on potential next students, which I think is really unique and special. Josh was clearly passionate about what he does and wanted to make a difference in the world. I liked all of those things about him.”

After so many years in the workforce, Galitsky wasn’t eager to take out new student loans and debt, so she was relieved to find that Lawler had funding for another Master’s student. Plus, he was open to her doing field work, which became the heart of her graduate program.

For her thesis, “Effects of Local Vegetation and Landscape Patterns on Avian Biodiversity in the Threatened Oak Habitat of the Willamette Valley, Ore.,” she spent several field seasons meticulously documenting birds, learning to recognize species by sight and sound, patiently listening and watching for long hours.

Christina Galitsky

Galitsky out birding.

“I found field work really hard, frustrating and amazing, all at the same time, every day,” she says. “Getting to see the sunrise every day and hear the birds in the morning was great. But having to get up at 3 a.m., not so good.”

The stress of field work, too, was different from her previous office deadlines. If things don’t go right in a field season—if your research doesn’t come together, or you need to adjust your methods—you’re in school for another year. “There’s more urgency to figure out how to make it right,” she says.

Galitsky persevered, of course, and she credits her committee, which included SEFS Professors John Marzluff and Aaron Wirsing, for their critiques and encouragement in building her confidence as a researcher. Above all, she’s grateful for Lawler’s support as her advisor. “Working with Josh was the highlight for me,” she says. “He just blew me away with how understanding, helpful and encouraging he was. He always seemed to have time for me, and he really helped me through grad school, probably more than he knows.”

Now, her transition from engineer to ecologist is complete: As of May 1, 2013, Galitsky is the program coordinator for Tree Kangaroo Conservation at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Not quite two months into her new gig, she says she feels privileged to have found a home at the intersection of so many of her interests. “The tree kangaroo program has both a wildlife and a people component, which was exactly what I wanted,” she says. “I think that’s why this project hits home to me. It’s been really fun working in a place where everyone has the same passions about animals and conservation.”

Tree Kangaroo

This photo, taken by Bruce Beehler, captures an incontrovertible truth about tree kangaroos: their incredible stuffed-animal cuteness.

Tree kangaroos are found only in one small region of Papua New Guinea, and Galitsky hopes she’ll get a chance to travel there in the next year or two with her boss, Dr. Lisa Dabek. Her current position, though, is not as a field research biologist, and she’s been focusing on fundraising, program management and outreach. “I’m probably most excited about the outreach,” she says. “We scientists aren’t always the best communicators, and I enjoy the challenge of being the link between scientific research and the public.”

As she settles into her new role, Galitsky has no regrets about her past career. Her new work, she says, isn’t more worthwhile; it’s just more her. Unlike her years spent in cement plants or steel factories, where she felt invested if not inspired, these days she finally has her passions and profession in tune. How can she tell? This time, the line between work and play is awfully fuzzy.

“I still love going out and watching birds and trying to identify them, probably to the dismay of my boyfriend and everyone around me,” says Galitsky. “I can’t shut it off!”

Photos of Christina Galitsky © Matt Gerhart; photo of tree kangaroo © Bruce Beehler.

Tree Kangaroo (Photo by Bruce Beehler)