From Field Ecology to Programming

 

My name is Kristina, and I am nearly finished with my PhD through the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation department at University of Florida. During this process, I’ve made an immense transition in my career that is surprising even to me.

 

Like most ecologists, I became interested in this field because I loved spending time outdoors. I spent much of my childhood canoeing, hiking, and generally bumming around in the woods with my friends. I was already intending on being a scientist when I started college, as I was enthralled by using the scientific method to discover how the world around us works.

 

I had no idea that there was a career that combines both passions until I took my first ecology course. You can imagine my delight when I discovered ecologists get to both spend time outside collecting data and use this to unravel the inner workings of our world. I was able to spend a lot of time on boats and in the water collecting lake samples for diverse organisms, from algae to fish, for both my own and others’ research, during my undergraduate degree.

 

My undergraduate mentor Dr. Bart De Stasio encouraged me to continue my path as a scientist by pursuing a PhD. While taking a year off to do research on fish behavior, I actually stumbled across my PhD advisor Dr. Ethan White through his lab’s blog. Most of his research focused on looking at patterns and processes that operate across many different types of species and ecosystems. Even though I was unfamiliar with this type of work, I was intrigued and decided to reach out to him anyways. As Dr. White mentioned six years later during my defense talk, I told him that I had no background in this area…yet.

 

Being able to ask such broad-reaching ecological questions requires knowing how to access, use, and analyze large amounts of data. I’ve been lucky enough to learn these skills throughout the course of my PhD with Dr. White. Because I had no background, I spent just as much time absorbing the literature of this type of work as teaching myself how to program, both of which I loved doing. I now have a strong computational foundation, including knowing how to program in several languages and use a collaborative version tracking system.

 

I am fortunate enough to continue doing this type of computationally- and data-intensive work after my PhD. I will soon be joining Dr. David LeBauer’s group at the University of Arizona as a scientific programmer, working with open source software tools and agricultural data. Though I never would have anticipated that this would be my path as a scientist, I’m grateful that I discovered how much I enjoy working with large amounts of data, which is available due to the blood, sweat, and tears of many other scientists, to ask interesting and broad questions about how our natural systems work.