Thursday, December 10, 2015

Fall 2015 Round-up

The Fall 2015 academic semester has ended at Texas Tech University, and students are on their way back to the places from which they will be from (to paraphrase an excellent Semisonic ballad).  I have submitted final grades and am spending some time working on neglected manuscripts and new proposals.

This semester saw the addition of two B.S.students-- Zac Tatum and Maria Gracias-Hernandez and two M.S. students to the lab-- Neil Estes and Jonathan Knudsen.  They have brought renewed energy and enthusiasm as they formulate ideas and proposals.  Britt Smith completed his dissertation proposal (woo hoo!) and is working on sorting hundreds of insect samples that he collected this summer.

The lab attended the Association for Fire Ecology's 6th Fire Congress in San Antonio, Texas.  I presented my work on fire effects on ant populations, communities, and body condition in a special session on fire effects on animals led by Dr. Derek Scasta (U. Wyoming).  Britt Smith presented a project on Google Trends during the poster session.  We also managed to check out a few cool places along the Riverwalk while we were there.

L-R, Neil Estes, Britt Smith, Jonathan Knudsen begrudgingly pose for a photo by a bridge

I'm already looking forward to Spring 2016-- Prescribed burning class (always a blast!), new exciting projects at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico, Southwestern Branch of the Entomological Society of American meetings in February, and the International Association for Wildland Fire 5th Annual Fire Behavior and Fuels conference in Portland, Oregon in April.  

I hope all of you have a safe and wonderful winter break and a happy holiday season!

Wildland fire search terms: trends and patterns

The following is a guest blog by Ph.D. student, Britt Smith.  Britt presented this research at the Association for Fire Ecology fire congress in San Antonio, Texas in November 2015.  For more information or questions about the project, you can contact him directly via e-mail.

Search engines can provide insight into how interested and engaged the public are about issues surrounding wildland fire.  Public interest in wildland fire can be influenced by several sources such as media, social networks, and peers.  News outlets often report on destructive wildfires, while often underreporting the use of prescribed fire (Jacobson et al. 2001).  With many people living in the wildland-urban interface, educating the public on wildland fire management and mitigation practices is an important goal.  Trends in search term use can help gauge public engagement of wildland fire knowledge.  Analysis of search terms can help us identify seasonal patterns of term interest.  Using search terms as indicators of interest provides another metric to examine public outreach and education efforts, and estimate future need.

We explored trends in five wildland fire search terms over the past decade and discerned existing patterns. 

We obtained search results from Google Trends using the terms: prescribed fire, prescribed burn, controlled burn, wildfire, and wildland fire.  Our search results were georestricted to the United States.  Search results were limited to the time frame of January 2004 (the earliest possible date) and December 2014.  The results from Google Tends are standardized from 0-100, with 100 being considered greater interest.  Google also excludes low volume searches, as well as duplicate searches from an individual.  We truncated search term results containing zero interest to the month following zero interest. We used a linear model to determine the trend of each search term.

The search terms prescribed fire and wildland fire show significant negative trends when truncated to exclude zero search interest.  The term controlled burn showed a positive trend when truncated.  This decrease in search term interest may be related to a reduction in the growth prescribed fire use in the southeastern United States (Kobziar et al. 2015).

Seasonality was apparent with all search terms.  Controlled burn, prescribed burn, and prescribed fire all show increased interest in the spring, which is likely related to application patterns.  Wildland fire and wildfire show increases in the summer months when wildfires are typical in the western United States.

Data Source: Google Trends (

Jacobson, S. K., M. C. Monroe, and S. Marynowski (2001). Fire at the wildland interface: The influence of experience and mass media on public knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions. Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973-2006) 29:929–937.

Kobziar, L., D. Godwin, L. Taylor, and A. Watts (2015). Perspectives on trends, effectiveness, and impediments to prescribed burning in the southern U.S. Forests 6:561–580.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ph.D. student awarded graduate fellowship

Britt Smith was recently awarded the Fern Lee "Missy" Finck Graduate Fellowship.  Congratulations to him!  A well deserved recognition and honor.

Monday, September 14, 2015

New undergraduates join the lab

We are pleased to welcome Maria Del Mar Gracia-Hernandez and Zachary Tatum to the Verble Fire Ecology Laboratory.

Maria is a Cell and Molecular Biology junior, and Zac is a sophomore majoring in Mathematics.  Both will be working on post-wildfire ant community responses.  They'll be sharing their experiences as the semester progresses!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Back to School!

The beginning of the fall semester is always a time of anticipation, new beginnings, and general excitement on a college campus.  New freshman arrived last week, and the rest of the undergraduates are arriving now.  Courses start on Monday.  Parking lots are filling up.  The rec center and gym are packed.  The copier is running nearly non-stop with syllabi and handouts, and faculty are murmuring about getting ready for their classes.  Local businesses are offering "back to school" promotions on everything from binders to beer.  There is a predictable energy to it all, and it is one of my favorite times of the year.

I am starting my fourth year at Texas Tech... I have been here long enough to not be considered "new" anymore, but I am still learning the ropes and figuring out my role in the Department, University, and profession.  This is the midpoint on my track to tenure, and as such, I am being reviewed by the department to evaluate my progress and offer helpful suggestions..  In preparation for this review, I have taken some time to reflect on my accomplishments and goals.  Below, I share a few things of which I am particularly proud and some items that I want to improve over the next few years.

A quick disclaimer-- This list is in no way exhaustive and does not reflect official conversations or advice from my committee or department chair.  The statements listed below are personal and not endorsed by TTU.

"Yay! List"

1-- I feel like I have found my voice in the classroom.  Undergraduate teaching has become a part of my career that I highly value and that brings me great joy.  I am impressed with the quality of undergraduate students at Texas Tech, their enthusiasm and motivation, and their genuine desire to learn.

2-- I have found a role in the Texas fire community.  My students and I have assisted on almost 10,000 acres of fire since 2012, and we are establishing ourselves as a useful and reliable resource for prescribed fire in the Texas Panhandle region.

3--  I am starting to see the fruits of my labor.  Students that have I have mentored are graduating and getting jobs, using the skills I taught them, and making an impact in their professional fields.  This is the best!!

"Try Harder! List"

1-- I want to be a more active participant in my professional societies.  This means getting involved in organizing, serving on committees, and getting to know the people who are leading the charge.

2-- I want to find ways to grow the TTU undergraduate fire program, provide fire internship opportunities, and get students more hands-on skills and experience.

3-- I want to develop and foster a (possibly student-led.. I'm looking at you TTU SAFE students!) fire outreach program for local schools and communities.

Happy Back-to-School everyone!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Summer Updates

This summer has been exceptionally rainy and green in Lubbock.  I barely recognize the place!  It has been amazing to watch all of the local flora come alive and to see the diversity of animals that can thrive here in a rainy year.

Seriously, just look at that beautiful weather!

A few updates from the lab:

Britt has spent the summer collecting data on the prescribed burns that were conducted this spring.  He has been filling the labs with samples from pitfall traps and still has more work to go!

Nick has submitted his thesis to the Graduate School and will be officially graduating in August 2015.

I am working on revamping courses and gearing up for two new projects with the National Park Service.  More details on those later!

Clara Frasconi-Wendt and I had a paper accepted to the Southwestern Naturalist.

Finally, I am excited to announce that Neil Estes will be joining the lab in August 2015.  Neil is pursuing an M.S. in Natural Resources Management.  He will be working at the Valles Caldera National Preserve on exotic and invasive plant ecology.  More on this soon!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spring 2015 Round-Up

The Spring 2015 semester has come to a close at Texas Tech.  This semester was markedly different for me, since I spent most of it on maternity leave.  While I have enjoyed spending time with my new kiddo, I am excited to get back to work full time.  But, it turns out, the old adage about the cat being away and the mice playing didn't hold true for my lab.  They've been busy doing all kinds of cool stuff!

Rachel Granberg was featured in a cool documentary on the Texas horned lizard.  Check it out!

Rachel, Gad Perry and I recently had a paper accepted in the Post Oaks and Prairies Journal.

Nick Goforth successfully defended his M.S. thesis on wildfires and bats.

Additionally, Seth Pearson and I recently had a paper accepted in the Natural Areas Journal.

I was profiled by Great Plains Fire Science.  Interview, here.

Britt Smith and undergraduate volunteers participated in prescribed burns to improve quail habitat with Global Frontline Solutions.

In total, this spring, the TTU Fire Lab assisted with just under 4,000 acres of prescribed fire.

And, finally, a couple of great undergraduate fire guys got their diplomas:

Neil Estes and Anton Gereau have both been enthusiastic and highly competent prescribed burners and leaders in our undergraduate fire program.  While I wish each of them the absolute best of luck in the their future endeavors, I am sure going to miss having them around!  Congratulations, guys!!

Anton Gereau (right) with Derrick Holdstock (TX Parks and Wildlife, left) burning at Lubbock Lake Landmark in 2014

Neil Estes on his first burn at Lubbock Lake Landmark, January 2014

Monday, May 4, 2015

Alumni Spotlight-- Cameron Ward

This is the second in a recurring series of posts about TTU Fire alumni and their current positions.

Cameron Ward graduated from Texas Tech's Department of Natural Resources in December 2013.  Since graduation, he has been a seasonal employee with the USDA Forest Service.  
Below he discusses his current position.

I am a seasonal biological technician working for the USDA Forest Service. I have worked for the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon and now work for the Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas. In Oregon I worked on noxious weed control to helped restore habitat after logging operations are done. I also surveys on prey of the spotted owl and I helped with the fire crew sometimes on the weekend. Now I’m doing Lesser Prairie Chicken surveys and assessing habitat quality for them on the grassland.

My time with the Forest Service has been great-- I’ve been able to meet new people and learn many new skills. It’s amazing being able to work in these beautiful places and see new things.

His advice for future new graduates:

"To get a job like this I’d recommend being persistent on applying and being patient. My advice on the job is to seize all opportunities for experience. Most of the people have been in your shoes and want to help you get more experience."

Monday, March 23, 2015

Alumni Spotlight-- Bradley Barker

This is the first in a recurring series of posts about TTU Fire alumni and their current positions.

Brad Barker graduated from Texas Tech's Department of Natural Resources in May 2014.  Since graduation, he has been employed with The Nature Conservancy's Arkansas Field Office.  Below he discusses his current position.

I work on the burn crew for The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. We are responsible for burning TNC, private, state, and federal lands across Arkansas. TNC’s goals are to reintroduce fire back into the landscape, restore prairies, cut back on herbaceous and woody fuels, decrease invasive plant species, consume leaf and pine duff, and manage habitat for the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.

Brad on an RXburn in pine

2015 TNC burn crew
This job has been a lot of fun-- my favorite part has been to burn in all types of fuel models and to see a variety of fire behavior. 

Working for TNC is a great way to gain experience and get a foot in the door with a variety of agencies. I have been lucky enough to make connections with hot shot crews, the Forest Service, and the Game and Fish Commission.
My advice for anyone trying to get into this field is to prepare to work hard; putting in fireline is not easy work. 

Fire jobs require a great deal of physical and mental strength, long hours, and working for multiple weeks with no days off. Also, I recommend being outgoing and outsourcing yourself; the fire world is a small community, and everyone knows somebody.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anna Meyer heads west to pursue new adventures

Anna Meyer defended her thesis in December 2014 and is graduating in May 2015.  She has been a perseverant, joyful, and all-around bright student to advise.  On behalf of the entire lab, I wish her the very best in future endeavors!  Below, she provides us with some thoughts on her time at TTU and her future plans.                  

                  After two years, I’m leaving the Verble Fire Ecology Lab.  I defended my thesis in December and snagged an amazing job opportunity in Washington.  After a long semester of spending fifteen hour shifts in labs and of finishing my thesis, I’m heading for the West Coast to gain some new experiences.  I leave tomorrow to volunteer at an extraordinary ranch in Central Texas for two weeks, and I’m excited about all of the new opportunities presenting themselves this year.

Anna at Camp Bowie
                  These two years have flown by.  They were daunting at the start, and I greatly underestimated exactly how much determination and effort I would need (I started at a flippant 22 years old).  Having reached the end of my Master’s, I feel like an entirely different person.  This degree has taught me the importance of communicating, planning ahead, being resourceful, jumping on opportunities, and developing interpersonal and business relationships.  Even in the process of applying for jobs and graduate opportunities post-Master’s, I feel that the skills I’ve learned here have made me a far more desirable candidate now, and in the future.

                  One of my dad’s favorite sayings is that in every experience, you find out what you like and what you don’t like.  In this experience, I’ve discovered that I love the physical aspects of research: outreach, education, field work, and trying to encourage networking between people.  Most of all I’ve found that I love nutrition studies, disturbance ecology, and working with prescribed fire.  (On the topic of things I don’t like, I’ve found that I don’t like being awake for over 48 hours at a time or finding scorpions in my bed.  Please don’t judge me).

                  My goal now is to find a job or a PhD opportunity on the West Coast, specifically in California.  I have a summer position lined up as a naturalist with a whale watching tour group in the San Juan Islands, and I cannot express in words how excited I am to have this job.  I’ve been applying to whale watching tours for six years (since my freshman year of undergrad), and I finally got in.  After that, I hope to find further jobs in the Pacific.

Cat-- found as a very tiny kitten during the field season, now thriving with Anna
                  First, I want to thank Dr. Verble, who I feel has been largely responsible for a lot of my growth as a researcher and who tried to steer me in the right direction when I was running into intellectual walls.  I want to thank Dr. Perry, my co advisor, for providing me with several incredible opportunities while I was at TTU.  I want to thank my parents for buying me food when they visited and providing emotional support when I was having a rough time, usually at 1 AM in a lab somewhere.  I want to thank all the awesome Texas Tech grad students who made this experience not only educational but also fun.  I really, really want to thank Rachel Granberg, my partner in crime and science, for teaching me a lot about planning, camping, and generally being self-sufficient.  Also, thank you for the cat (I hope to see you in Washington).  My landowners and land managers were great, I’ve never met so many interesting and outspoken people.  I hope to see you guys around.  Thanks to all you guys for the opportunities, and for the experience, and for the cat.