New Faculty Intro: Sarah Converse

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

This March, we were enormously pleased to welcome our newest faculty member, Sarah J. Converse, who joins us as an associate professor and the new leader of the Washington Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. The Cooperative Research Unit program was founded in the 1930s to enhance graduate education in fisheries and wildlife sciences, and to facilitate research between natural resource agencies and universities. In Washington the Coop is a partnership between federal and state government agencies, the University of Washington, and the Wildlife Management Institute. While Sarah’s position is technically funded through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), her role operates in all other ways as a non-tenured faculty member—with her home department in SEFS and a joint appointment with the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Sarah with a sandhill crane at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Sarah, who grew up in Battle Creek, Mich., brings tremendous experience as a quantitative population ecologist with a strong interest in decision analysis and decision science, conservation biology, demographic estimation, hierarchical modeling, integrated population modeling and reintroduction biology. “I build models of wildlife populations, and then I help land managers use those models to make management decisions,” she says.

That element of her research—working with land managers and seeing real-world applications of her models for different species—really clicked for her during graduate school.

Coming out of her bachelor’s in fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University, Sarah thought she’d probably end up being a lawyer. Then she went on to a master’s program in natural resource sciences at the University of Nebraska, where she got to work on a project she loved involving box turtles and the pet trade. “That really cemented it,” she says. “By the end of my master’s, I knew I would be continuing on and working as a research scientist.”

Her next move was to complete a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from Colorado State University, where she got heavier training in quantitative methods, before accepting a postdoc position at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Two years later, she accepted a permanent position at Patuxent. For the next 10 years, Sarah worked there as a research ecologist with projects that stretched across the country from Washington to Florida, and also internationally. Most involved studying threatened species, including whooping crane recovery and conservation, management of avian reintroductions in New Zealand, and design and analysis methods for albatross population studies.

Sarah and her husband relocated from Washington, D.C., to Seattle in mid-March, and they have just moved into their new home in Green Lake. Here, she has her hands full with a waved albatross in the Galapagos.

“I really enjoyed my time at Patuxent—so many great people there, an amazing place to work—and 10 years went by really quickly,” she says.

Still, she always thought she’d end up back in academia, and this Coop faculty position struck her as a perfect fit and opportunity. “I like the environment and the energy of a university,” says Sarah, “and I love working with students. I also love the Northwest and always wanted to live here, so when this job came up, I was really excited.”

After the national-level focus of her time at Patuxent, Sarah is also excited to be a whole lot closer to some of her study areas and species in Washington. “For 10 years, my closest project, in terms of where I was working, was in Wisconsin, about 1,000 miles from my home,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to getting to know the state of Washington—ecologically, socially, politically, all those things—so I feel I’m working where I live. To be more immersed in a place is going to be great.”

As that immersion begins, we are thrilled to have Sarah as part of our community, and we encourage you to stop by her new office in Anderson 123A (at least part of the time) or introduce yourselves by email.


Photos © Sarah Converse.

Captured here working on a Florida manatee survey, Sarah will stay involved with a postdoc working on lesser prairie chickens, another with polar bears, and a new one working on marine birds in Europe—so even with her new home in the Pacific Northwest, she’ll have plenty of other national and international projects.


This Week: Four Faculty Candidate Seminars!

This week, you are invited to join us for four seminars featuring faculty candidates for a position as unit leader of the Washington Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Depending on the selected candidate, the position will be based either at SEFS or at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

All seminars will run from 4 to 5 p.m., and please pay attention to room locations below, as they vary with each speaker. We hope you can come out to hear from and meet these candidates!

1. Tuesday, December 13, 4 to 5 p.m., FSH 203
Dr. Michelle McCLure
Division Director, NOAA Fisheries

“Science for Salmon Recovery: Building Foundations for Agency Action”
Twenty‐six Evolutionarily Significant Units in five west coast anadromous salmonid species were listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. Since that time, a wide range of scientific work to support the recovery of these ESUs has been conducted. I describe how we developed biological recovery goals for Interior Columbia species, as well as population modeling evaluating the impact of anthropogenic actions and environmental conditions on these species. Reintroductions and climate change will almost certainly factor into the long-term recovery of these and other species; I also provide an overview of guidance we developed to inform management and science efforts in both of these areas.

Michelle is currently the division director of the Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NOAA Fisheries). In this capacity, in addition to sending lots of email, she oversees much of the scientific work that informs harvest management for the West Coast Groundfish fishery. Prior to this position, she worked for 13 years on salmon conservation efforts, including co-chairing the Interior Columbia Technical Recovery Team. Michelle received her Ph.D. from Cornell University, and her undergraduate degree from The Evergreen State College.

2. Wednesday, December 14, 4 to 5 p.m., AND 207 (Forest Club Room)
Dr. Dan Esler
USGS Alaska Science Center

“Conservation Research on Migratory Birds Throughout the Annual Cycle”
Migratory birds are challenging to manage, given their use of spatially discrete and ecologically variable habitats at different annual cycle stages. Identifying when and where constraints on populations are manifested can be very difficult under these circumstances. In this seminar, I lay out some of the challenges inherent in research and management of migratory animals, including (1) delineation of meaningful population units, (2) identification of demographic bottlenecks, and (3) determination of drivers of variation in demographic attributes, including cross-seasonal effects that originate in one annual cycle stage but are expressed in another. I give examples of how my research has addressed these challenges with conservation issues ranging from specific, local habitat alterations to continental-scale concerns about population status.

Dan is a research wildlife biologist with the Alaska Science Center of USGS, where he leads the Nearshore Marine Ecosystem Research Program. Prior to that, he was with the Centre for wildlife Ecology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, where he directed an applied research program addressing sea ducks and other aquatic birds and their prey. Dan’s research utilizes a broad range of approaches and disciplines, with the overarching goal of providing research that is relevant for informed conservation of wildlife populations, habitats, and ecosystems.

3. Thursday, December 15, 4 to 5 p.m. FSH 203
Dr. Julien Martin
Wetland and Aquatic Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey

“Ecological Modeling for Decision Making”
Julien will discuss the role of ecological modeling for making decisions about natural resource management. First, I will describe the role of traditional approaches for conservation, such as population viability analyses, threat analyses and trend detection. Then I will present a more structured approach to decision making. I will consider the example of optimal design of protection zones for marine mammals. I will follow up with the application of an adaptive resource management framework for dealing with sequential decisions and model uncertainty. I will also contrast the role of surveillance and targeted monitoring programs in the context of conservation and management.

Julien is a research wildlife biologist at the US Geological Survey’s Wetland and Aquatic Research Center. He obtained a B.S. in ecology from the University of Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris, France), a M.S. in analysis and modeling of biological systems from the University of Lyon (France), and a Ph.D. in the department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida. As a research graduate assistant at the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit he was in charge of the Snail Kite monitoring program. He worked as postdoctoral researcher at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research center on statistical modeling and decision analysis. Before joining the USGS, he worked for 5 years as the lead research scientist in the marine mammal program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission (the Florida state wildlife agency). He is a courtesy faculty member in: (1) the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida; and (2) the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. His expertise includes: wildlife ecology, estimation of demographic parameters, population dynamics, ecological forecasting and the application of decision theory to natural resource management.

4. Friday, December 16, 4 to 5 p.m., AND 207 (Forest Club Room)
Dr. Sarah Converse
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

“The Interaction of Demographic Estimation, Modeling and Decision Analysis in Threatened Species Management”
Managers of threatened species are interested in identifying strategies to reduce the risk of extinction and to increase the ecological and socio-cultural benefits of these species. To identify optimal management strategies, we must predict how populations will respond to management. To do that, quantitative ecologists work with managers and species experts on two interrelated processes: estimating demographic parameters and relationships from existing data, and using this information to build population models. These two processes alone, however, will rarely be adequate to identify optimal management actions. When using information to make decisions, threatened species managers are often confronted with at least two additional complications: dealing with uncertainty, and negotiating tradeoffs between competing objectives. Therefore, the philosophy and tools of decision analysis are critical to the process of identifying optimal management strategies. Through a series of examples across a variety of threatened  taxa – including polar bears, boreal toads, and whooping cranes – the interrelationships between, and the methods for, demographic estimation, population  modeling, and decision analysis will be illustrated.

Sarah is a research ecologist in the Quantitative Methods Research Group at USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where she has worked since 2007. Previously, she worked as a post-doctoral research associate in the Colorado Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, after receiving her Ph.D. from Colorado State University in 2005. Her research program is built around two themes: quantitative population ecology of endangered species, and decision analysis applications in endangered species management. Her work spans taxonomic boundaries, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects. She has published more than 50 research articles and book chapters. She regularly assists US Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife management agencies in the identification of management strategies for threatened species.