Monday, March 11, 2013

Going Fishing or Going to Work? The Life of a Fisheries Biologist

To kick off our series on water careers, we got to enjoy a conversation with Josh Sherwood, who works for the Illinois State Natural History Survey as a Fisheries Research Scientist. Josh grew up in Illinois, attended Hartsburg-Emden High School, studied at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and finished up with a masters of science from Western Illinois University. He graciously answered all our questions and was even nice enough to say he had fun doing so! Thanks to Josh for being a good sport, and we hope you enjoy his insights into the world of aquatic biology.  

Your official title is Fisheries Research Scientist. Can you explain what that means in your day-to-day responsibilities?

Basically, I analyze data gathered on the fish in Illinois (either my own or gathered by other organizations) to try and find any factors that may affect fish populations. During the summer, I lead a crew that goes out and samples the fish found in streams.

Currently we are working in Champaign County, but I have been lucky enough to sample many streams, rivers and lakes throughout the state in my short career. In addition to fish, I have also done projects on freshwater mussels (or clams) as well as other invertebrates (bugs). The winter is not nearly as exciting. During the winter I will enter data gathered from the previous summer, analyze the data and write reports or papers describing what I have found.
Josh's technicians seining for fish

How would your grandmother describe your job?

Haha, she would probably say that I get paid to go fishing!

How did you become interested in fish, and why research? Any pivotal moments in your past that led you down the aquatic sciences track? 

I grew up fishing a lot with my family and always loved being outside, on the local lake or creek. I did well in high school and actually decided to study engineering in college. I didn’t really enjoy my first year studying engineering, mainly because it required too much deskwork and I wanted to be outside. One of my friends was studying fish and wildlife conservation here at the U of I, I didn’t even know this was a major option! I switched over the next semester and begun enjoying going to class. I was lucky enough to work for a couple of scientists here at the INHS as a technician and from that I knew that this was something I would love to do for the rest of my life, helping keep fish around for future generations to enjoy.

Anything you wish you’d done in college or grad school, like a research experience, class, or adventure, that you missed out on? Or, what kind of advice would you offer current students looking to get into your field?

As an undergrad I was offered a position in the Bahamas to assist with research being done there, but I turned it down so that I wouldn’t miss a semester and delay my graduation. Still kicking myself for that decision!

For those wanting to get into the field, experience is the key. I got started by volunteering in a lab and gaining experience. This lead to a paid position and the experience I gained through both has guided me down the path I wanted. That being said, if you get the chance to do this, don’t just go through the motions. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can. You are helping someone who is passionate about what they do and most are excited about spreading that passion to others.

What parts of your educational experiences have been most useful in transitioning from school to a job?

Classes will give you the base knowledge and the ones that interest you the most can steer you towards what job you want. Getting out there and experiencing what I thought I wanted to do was the most useful for me in transitioning from school to my job. Even if you are not able to get a job in the field, helping professionals and learning as much as you can will help you tremendously.

How do you see the future of your field? Will there be lots more or fewer fisheries scientists in twenty years?

That depends on how we address the challenges we are facing today. Many people in the world rely on fish as a major part of their diets. The more people there are in the world, the more fish and other aquatic/marine species will be harvested to feed them. We will need more scientists who are willing to tackle this large job so we can keep feeding people without destroying fish populations.

How many cups of coffee are required to get you through a busy workday?

Hahaha, well I am a bit of a coffee-holic. I drink coffee regardless of my schedule. But as you can imagine, those winter days in front of my computer require more coffee than those summer days in the field.

I visited some 5th grade students a few weeks ago, and their number one question about my fieldwork experience was if I was ever scared. So, are you ever scared doing fieldwork, and, if so, why or why not?

Well, I don’t really care for snakes and on occasion we run across them in the streams. I wouldn’t call it being scared, but I am definitely uncomfortable. Also, there are days when we are working on the bigger rivers (Illinois, Mississippi or Wabash), when I am scared of catching a large Asian Carp with my face.

And again for the 5th graders, what are some adventures that science has allowed you to enjoy?

I have been lucky enough to be able to explore the streams all across Illinois and it is amazing what you may find in streams, and I am not talking about fish. I enjoy finding, and am amazed at what some people throw into streams. We have found things like tricycles, furniture, computers, microwaves, and, from a stream near Chicago, even a gun.

What do you wish more people knew or understood about Illinois fish?

A Bluebreast Darter--Josh's favorite fish
I wish people realized how diverse the fish in Illinois are. Most people only know about those species that you can catch with a rod and reel. But there is so much more in your local stream than you realize—species that are extremely colorful and with unique adaptations that you would not expect.