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Women in Ag: Raelene Crandall

By Kim Scotto

 

Dr. Raelene Crandall, assistant professor in the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation, fondly remembers her first fire: a prescribed prairie burn during an undergraduate internship with the Nature Conservancy.

It wasn’t just the thrill of lighting a fire that would help the environment that drew Crandall in. The regeneration of the prairie fascinated her, and she returned daily to watch new life spring from the ashes. From then on, whenever the Nature Conservancy needed help with a burn, she was there.

After graduating from Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, Crandall moved out West to join a U.S. Forest Service fire crew. She worked for two years fighting fires in Colorado, but felt conflicted about suppressing fire, a necessary and important ecological process.

“With my combined experiences lighting prescribed fires in Indiana and fighting wildfires out West, I felt like I needed to take a step back and link fire with ecology. I didn’t want to just be out fighting fires, I wanted to learn about them too.”

Firefighting was also a male-dominated industry, and Crandall’s experiences in the field ignited a passion in her to promote women and other underrepresented groups in forestry. She knew she had to return to academia to make a difference.

Crandall earned her M.S. from Oklahoma State University and Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. She joined the faculty at the UF/IFAS SFRC in 2016. Her research focuses on how fires influence plant population dynamics as well as community patterns in species richness and composition. Since most studies only consider one fire season or one single species, her broader look into fire ecology is novel and needed in the field. Beyond her research program, Crandall is already known within the school for her mentoring initiatives.

“I try to make a connection with every student in my lab or classroom that will last a lifetime. I know how important mentorship is and want to help guide students on their paths.”

Sometimes that can even mean letting stellar students go.

“I had an undergraduate student, one of my best, who published great research, was an excellent learner, but something was just missing for her. It was hard for her after having invested so much time into the program, but we were able to talk about her career goals, and now she is happily a dentist! In the same vein, we’ve had students join SFRC from nursing and other programs. I want my students to love what they do.”

Crandall’s students, undergraduate and graduate alike, have the rare opportunity to learn best management practices through experimental burns at the Austin Cary Memorial Forest. Crandall has now been lighting fires for over 20 years to improve forests and loves passing her knowledge on to the next generation of fire ecologists. “UF is one of the few places in the world to give students the hands-on opportunity to work with prescribed fires,” said Crandall “I can’t imagine a better job.”

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