Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Water Jobs: Ecosystem Management

Paris Collingsworth is an ecosystem specialist with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and stationed at the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. Paris hails from Alger, OH and attended Samford University in Alabama. He earned his M.S. at Southern Illinois University and completed his education with a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. He is also an avid fisherman and the first person who ever offered to be on WaterJobs when they learned about this series, so a big “thank you” to Dr. Collingsworth for taking the time to answer all of our questions!

Would you explain what an ecosystem specialist does?
My primary duties involve outreach to the broader scientific and management community of the Great Lakes.  Through my connection with the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, I work with researchers and management agencies across the Great Lakes, providing them with data collected through the EPA-GLNPO monitoring programs.  I am also involved in research.  Some of my more recent projects include improving monitoring program effectiveness through quantitative analyses and coordinating interdisciplinary research across the Great Lakes. 

How does one become an ecosystem specialist?
Well, that is a good question.  Obviously, my job requires a certain academic background. Throughout my career, I have always looked for opportunities to broaden the scale of my research.  It took some time and the process was very incremental, but I am now to the point that I have participated in research or monitoring projects in all 5 of the Great Lakes.  I think this breadth of experience has really benefitted my work.

What does a day in your working life look like?
Most days I work at my desk in a typical cubical farm environment, working on the computer either writing or processing data.  I also spend a lot of time travelling to meet with collaborators to discuss research and monitoring activities.  During the summers I spend a good bit of time on the Lake Guardian collecting field data.

Since you spend a lot of time at a computer processing data, what’s on your work soundtrack?
I love music but I listen more frequently at home than at work.  When I do listen to music at work, it is usually downtempo electronic music, things like Boards of Canada, Tycho and Bonobo.  I like listening to music at work, but it usually just distracts me from what I am doing.

Would you tell us about the fieldwork and data collection you do?
What is your wildest experience doing fieldwork, ever?
I do go out in the field from time to time, but not as much as when I was in graduate school.  My wildest field experience came during my dissertation research.  I was working with two technicians sampling yellow perch in Lake Erie during the early spring spawning season.  The water was very cold and the weather was not cooperating.  As we were pulling in a trawl it got hung up on the bottom and waves started crashing over the transom.  As we worked to get the net untangled, one of the technicians began panicking because he thought we were sinking.  I had to shake him around a bit to get him to snap out of it because we needed his help to get out of the situation.  It seems funny now, but I will never forget the terror in his eyes.  I am proud to say that he finished out the season working on my project and is still in the field to this day.

What do you most wish people understood about your research?
I wish that people understood the subjects of my research better.  Here in the Midwest we have one of the greatest natural resources in the world in the Great Lakes.  These lakes provide water and food for millions of people, support recreation and industry across the region, and are beautiful places to spend some time.  All of these activities cause stress on the ecosystem, but they are a major part of the economies of the Midwest.  Part of my job is to try to minimize the damage that we are causing to the lakes so that future generations will have access to them.

We know you’ve worked with some student interns through Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant; what kind of advice would you give to students who are interested in summer internship?
Let’s assume that the point of an internship is to make one more competitive in the job market.  From my experience, getting a job is mostly about the skills that you have and the people that you know.  An interested student should look for an internship that either expands their skill set or expands their professional network.  

How did you decide to go to graduate school?
I decided to go to graduate school at some point during my last year in college.  My interests were pretty broad at that time, but I had researched enough to know that all of my potential career paths required some graduate work.  The hardest part for me was deciding what field of biology I wanted to pursue and this required a bit of trial and error (see next question). 

When you were 16, what did you want to be when you grew up, and what, if anything, changed your mind? 
When I was 16 (more like 18, but let’s run with it) I wanted to do biomedical research.  What changed my mind was my actual experience in that field.  I landed an excellent job straight out of college working as a technician in a molecular genetics lab.  It was a great opportunity to learn about this field (my first scientific publication described some protein crystallography experiments that I conducted) and, after a few years of paying my dues there, they offered me a Ph.D. assistantship in the lab.  Ultimately, I turned the offer down because I could not see myself working at a lab bench for the rest of my life.  I stayed at that job for a few months while I looked into different options for graduate school.  Aquatic ecology was always interesting to me and fisheries management seemed to be a somewhat practical way to work in that field.  I applied to SIU and the rest is history.