Monday, December 8, 2014

Fall 2014 Wrap-Up

The fall semester is rapidly coming to an end.  Finals Week is in high gear, and the campus is already noticeably quieter, as students depart for their winter break.

This semester, I taught Fire Ecology and Management to a class of 35 junior and senior students, and Environmental Science as a Social Pursuit to around the same number of freshman and sophomores.  Both classes were exciting opportunities to interact with students and learn via student interactions and refreshing my lectures and presentations.

Last week, Anna Meyer successfully defended her thesis, Effects of Fire on Two Ant Species in Central Texas.  While she won't officially graduate until May 2014, this marks a huge accomplishment for her, and I am quite pleased with her work to date.  The results of her work will be featured on tomorrow's radio broadcast of West Texas AgLife.

Additionally, I attended the Society for Range Management -Texas Section meetings in Alpine, Texas and the Texas Prescribed Burn Board meeting in Austin, Texas.  I also helped organize a symposium for the national Entomological Society of America meeting in Portland, Oregon on how to retain women in entomology.  All in all, I feel like its been a productive semester.

Finally, several of the students that I have gotten to know over the last few years at Texas Tech are poised to graduate this December.  I have had the privilege of teaching and mentoring several of these students, and send a heartfelt congratulations to them as they embark on their journey as stewards of natural resources.  In particular, congratulations to my academic advisees Bianca Rendon and Cleaburn Nix, former Student Association for Fire Ecology president Heather Williams, and my graduate student Rachel Granberg (MS).

I wish all of you a happy holiday season and safe travels during this busy time of year!  

Selected December 2014 Texas Tech NRM Graduates:

Cleaburn Nix is completing his B.S. in Natural Resources Management with an emphasis in Wildlife Biology.  He is easily one of the most reliable and trustworthy students I have mentored and excels at hands-on projects.  Cleaburn is a certified Type II Wildland Firefighter, and he is interested in pursuing a career with a wildlife management agency or organization.

Cleaburn Nix gives the guns-up during a prescribed burn in April 2013
Bianca Rendon is completing her B.S. in Natural Resources Management with an emphasis in Wildlife Biology.  She has been active in undergraduate research and spent two summers working as an undergraduate researcher on Barro Colorado Island, Panama with Dr. Ximena Bernal (formerly, TTU, currently Purdue Biology).  Bianca is interested in pursuing an MS in mosquito and/or vector ecology.

Bianca Rendon during a Forest and Rangeland Insect Diversity class photo in Junction, TX; May 2013

Heather Williams is completing her B.S. in Natural Resources Management with an emphasis in Conservation Science.  Heather's enthusiasm is contagious.  Additionally, she is one of the most well-rounded students I have met, having participated in a fisheries internship with Texas Parks and Wildlife, certified as a Type II Wildland Firefighter, served as the TTU Student Association for Fire Ecology club president, and been an active member of the Student Conservation Biology Club.  Upon graduation, she is interested in continuing to expand and refine her skills via internships and eventually an MS program in fisheries.

Heather Williams at AgFest 203

Rachel Granberg completes her M.S. in Natural Resources Management in my laboratory this December.  She defended her thesis in September.  Rachel has written a guest blog that outlines her experiences at TTU and plans for the future.  Rachel has been a wonderful student to advise.  She is remarkably tenacious, very bright, and an incredible self-starter and motivator.  In addition, she is an incredibly interesting and fun person!  I have no doubts that she will be a wonderful asset to her future employers and wish her all the best.

Rachel Granberg on a prescribed burn, August 2013

Monday, December 1, 2014

Rachel Granberg bids the Fire Ecology Lab farewell

Rachel completed her M.S. this semester and is graduating in December 2014.  She has been a productive, enthusiastic, and wonderful student to advise.  On behalf of the entire lab, I wish her the very best in future endeavors!  Below, she summarizes her experiences this semester and her future plans.
This semester has been extremely busy for me.  I ended my second field season in early August and defended my thesis at the end of September.  After defending, I took a short study abroad course in tropical ecology and conducted vegetation surveys in the British Virgin Islands.  I just returned from a Thanksgiving camping trip to Big Bend National Park and am working on submitting manuscripts for publication.  I am also just finishing up filming for a short documentary on which I am collaborating with Wild Lens, Inc. 

In roughly two weeks, I will be graduating from Texas Tech University with my Master’s in Natural Resources Management.  It stuns me how quickly time has passed since I arrived here.  My experiences at Tech have jettisoned me to a new level of maturity and professionalism.  I am looking forward to re-entering the conservation world with a new suite of skills and ideas.  My long-term goal is to be a research ecologist with USGS.  I want to conduct research to understand impacts of fire in the western US and how climate change and land use change may affect these. 

My next step is to join a prescribed fire crew with The Nature Conservancy in Alabama.  I will primarily be based out of Mobile, but our crew will chase good fire weather around the state.  We will be collaborating with USFS, private land owners, and timber industry to administer fire in habitats where it historically occurred.  Working in prescribed fire will give me a greater understanding of fire behavior and will provide valuable networking opportunities.  After finishing up in Alabama, I plan on working a handcrew position in wildland fire suppression in my home state of Washington.

British Virgin Islands (C) Jess East 2014
I have been nothing but blessed in my time in Lubbock.  I was adopted by a wonderful family, the Elliotts, who have let me live in their home and ride their horses like I was one of their own.  I also have been blessed by an incredibly supportive family back home.  I know y’all are tired of me constantly moving because of work (and my wanderlust), but I appreciate that you have supported my education and goals.  I have also made some pretty fantastic friends here in Lubbock.  The students in the Department of Natural Resources Management are incredible people.  I have never met so many good-hearted, fun-loving people in one place.  I would also like to thank my co-advisors, Dr. Verble and Dr. Perry, for their support through graduate school.  Dr. Verble has helped me see there is room for women in fire ecology, we just have to be brave enough to stake a claim.  This has been a whirlwind trip for me and I am looking forward to the next adventure.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Insect Soup

The following is a guest post by Ph.D. student, Britt Smith.  Britt joined the Fire Ecology Lab in June 2014 and has been working on the effects of fire on quail and quail food items.  Below, he shares a story about his project.

Hello! I’m excited to write my first post for the Verble Fire Ecology Lab blog. I am a new PhD. Student in the lab. I am originally from Missouri and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri – Kansas City with a B.S. in Environmental Science. After that, I spent two years working at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources where I worked on surveillance and sampling for chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer populations in southwest Wisconsin, and on a large scale grassland conservation project known as the Southwest Wisconsin Grassland and Stream Conservation Area. I left Wisconsin to pursue my Master’s degree at Oklahoma State University where I explored a pasture management technique known as patch-burn grazing, and it’s influence on vegetation and wildlife species. I arrived at Texas Tech this summer, and am examining the influence of fire on arthropod communities in the rolling plains, and particularly arthropods that are important for northern bobwhite quail chicks and breeding females. My research interests focus around the restoration of the historic disturbance regimes of fire and grazing to influence vegetation structure and wildlife utilization of grassland ecosystems.

example elf a pitfall trap just before collecting (C) Britt Smith 2014
This summer I started sampling arthropods in burned and unburned areas in the Texas rolling plains. To sample arthropods I used pitfall traps, which is a plastic cup buried flush with the ground and filled with a solution of water and propylene glycol (pet friendly antifreeze). After about a week, arthropods that have fallen into, and subsequently drowned, are collected and stored in plastic bags. I then take these arthropods back to the lab for processing.

a plastic whirl-pac bag containing collected arthropod specimens (C) Britt Smith 2014
Once back at the lab, these insects are placed into a container and the large arthropods are sorted from the smaller. I call this liquid concoction “insect soup”. While it’s probably chemically safe to eat, I wouldn’t. I then identify the large insects. In the picture below one can see two click beetles, one dung beetle, and two roaches.

arthropods collected and simmering in the "insect soup" (C) Britt Smith 2014

Next, I look into the soup through a dissecting microscope, which gives a large field of view. I then proceed to identify and count individuals of each taxa in the soup. For most insects this is no problem, but for springtails, which can have hundreds of individuals, I estimate by counting individuals in a quarter section of the soup and multiplying by 4.

view through the dissecting scope to identify small arthropods (C) Britt Smith 2014
Taxa and individuals are recorded and then entered into a database and ready for analysis. The soup is transferred to a plastic bag, where it is stored in case something goes awry.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Busy and Eventful Year

The following is a guest blog post by M.S. student, Nick Goforth.  You can also follow Nick on his own blog.

The second year of my Master’s is quickly coming to an end and it has been a very eventful one!  I have completed all of my required classes, wrapped up my second season of fieldwork, got married, and am in the process of buying a house in Lubbock with my new wife.  And in the middle of all that, I’ve been working through a mountain of data!! 

Me and my new wife, Jessica Goforth, at our September wedding.

This year I got to spend two more months in the beautiful Jemez Mountains of wonderful New Mexico conducting acoustic surveys and mist netting bats.  Luckily, we didn’t have another fire this year, so it was a pretty good field season!  We also caught a lot more bats this year!  Here are the overall bat activity levels from 2013 and 2014.  These activity levels were determined using six Wildlife Acoustic SM2Bat+ recorders.  We observed a shift in activity levels between treatments from 2013 to 2014.

Fig. 1 Overall bat activity levels in 2013 on the Valles Caldera National Preserve (Sites: LC=Las Conchas Wildfire (2011), TR=Thompson Ridge Wildfire (2013), UB=Unburned Forests).

Fig. 2 Overall bat activity levels in 2014 on the Valles Caldera National Preserve (Sites: LC=Las Conchas Wildfire (2011), TR=Thompson Ridge Wildfire (2013), UB=Unburned Forests).

In 2013 bats were more active at the Las Conchas study sites, but became more active at the Thompson Ridge study sites in 2014.  This change is hypothesized to be caused by an influx of insects due to the growth of flowering plants and burned trees and an increased availability of roost sites following the Thompson Ridge Wildfire.  I am currently working to determine how burn severity and forest type affects bat activity levels.
Thompson Ridge study site in 2013

Thompson Ridge study site in 2014.

After graduating in May of 2015, I plan to stay at Tech Tech to pursue my doctorate, also working with bats and wildfire.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


A couple of big news items from the lab:

Rachel Granberg successfully defended her M.S. thesis on Texas horned lizard home ranges, habitats, and habitat suitability.  She will officially graduate in December 2014.  Congratulations, Rachel!

M.S. student, Nick Goforth, recently wed his lovely fiancĂ©e, Jessica Smith.  You may remember Nick and Jessica from an earlier blog post about her journey to get better prosthetic legs for field work.  Click here to donate to that fundraiser.

Mr. and Mrs. Nick Goforth, photo stolen from Nick Goforth's Facebook page 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Guest Blog: Academics Isn't a Spring, Its a Marathon

The following is a guest blog post by Anna Meyer.  All opinions expressed are hers.

When I started my Master’s Degree, I had this unfounded notion that things would go quickly.  Two years seemed short.  Perhaps due to the short, intense nature of undergrad classes where you rocket from beginning to end in a few hazy months of tear soaked assignments and bleary eyed exams, I assumed graduate school would be similar (I was young, idealistic, and stupid).  I thought I could crank out a fast proposal, crank out a fast methods section, and crank out a fast field season before popping out some speedy statistics and blowing out of here in record time.

Now, almost finished with my degree, I’ve had the profound epiphany that you cannot sprint through an advanced degree.  You need to walk-jog through it.  Sometimes you crawl through it.  But trying to fly through your masters like a go-cart powered by adrenaline, coffee and jet fuel is unfeasible. 

This may be off-putting to many people.  A year of our lives, especially in our younger years, is a long time (two years is literally a tenth of my life so far).  Putting in two to three years for a Master’s and up to seven for a PhD can feel like signing on for some modern form of indentured servitude.  Additionally, there is no good way to rush through these and regain years of your life.  So, for you undergrads who want a fast and easy advanced degree, I’m going to stomp on your hopes and dreams: it’s not like that.  It will never be like that.

Truthfully, you need to be in for the long haul, through some arduous and will-destroying situations.  You may lie on the floor of your office/lab/both at 3 am in the morning, trying to finish something at a high powered microscope but desperate for fifteen minutes of sleep.  You may spend 36 straight hours tracking down the last version of a rare manuscript that you NEED to cite for your thesis but is only available in an old book of microfilm that you have to track down deep in the archives of Ecuadorian CSIRO and have shipped to you (via the slower cousin of Pony Express judging by the month it takes to arrive).  You may sit in interminable streams of water in a dripping tent at midnight in your waterlogged sleeping bag after four straight days of rain and be ready to head back out the next day to collect data.  Your relationships will likely fail in the face of your overarching affair with science (but not necessarily!  Have hope!  You’ll find someone someday! It’s statistically probable!).  You may not get enough data, your data may be lost, and you may have to rearrange your methods. 

It would be easy to quit here, right?  It would be easy, and even within your rights to give up.  You’re probably making less than the average fast food worker.  But that’s where being a grad student comes in.  You hang on through all of this, you re-enter your data, you rearrange your methods.  But you mostly just learn to plow through every imaginable situation you can possibly tolerate, and then write a thesis. Which is also not easy.  Writing isn’t just cranking out stream of consciousness thoughts like James Joyce’s Ulysses.  You cite everything you read (Meyer, unpublished data).  You come up with extremely intricate outlines like you’re making the world’s most elaborate house of cards. Sometimes you wait a year on a year on a colleague to summarize a bit of data for a paper that you thought you would have submitted nine months ago, and then Reviewer 1 takes two months to tell you that your article needs major revisions. But day by day, you find (and claw, and sob) your way through and then you finally emerge, blinking in the bright light of not-your-lab and holding a diploma and a nicely bound document of your finished research.  Congrats!  Now go apply for your next degree, you motivated Master of Science, you.