Cat Frock is a WEC PhD candidate. Her adviser is Dr. Bob McCleery.
How did you get into wildlife? Do you have an origin story?
I didn’t decide on doing this as a career until I was in college. I was looking around and thinking about my interests in school and my personal interests, and I decided on ecology. It seemed really broad and interesting but I still didn’t have to pick anything specific. That’s how I wound up doing this as a career, and looking back, I think it was a pretty good decision!
It makes a lot of sense, because I was constantly outside as a kid and really liked science.
What’s one word that describes how you work?
What’s your favorite organism you’ve worked with and why?
That’s way too hard. It would be easier to pick one species from every major taxon I’ve worked with. I started out working with butterflies and amphibians, and I still really like working with amphibians, although I haven’t done it in a long time. So tiger salamanders, California spotted owls, kangaroo rats: it’s too hard to choose!
It sounds like you’ve worked with basically everything!
All kinds of species and in places around the US. I had some experience doing undergraduate research with one lab during my undergrad, and I did an REU (Research Experiences for Undergrads) in Alaska.
After I graduated, however, I felt like I had limited experience with specific regions of the country and species. I wanted to know what was out there, so I intentionally set out to find jobs where I would get experience with a lot of different animals at once. I worked on general wildlife crews with the Forest Service, for example, and on an ecosystem project in California where we studied basically every animal there is to study!
Do you have any crazy field stories?
Of course! All kinds of stuff. Working for the Forest Service out in California, we would occasionally wander upon a marijuana grow, which was always interesting.
I was working with a big field crew at the time. We were trapping small mammals on the same grid, so we were never too far apart.
I had always been told about the kinds of crazy stuff you would find on Forest Service lands. I knew friends of friends who had literally been chased by men with machine guns because they had stumbled onto somewhere they shouldn’t be.
Fortunately for us, when we found them, they were actually really, really small plots. So I wasn’t concerned that someone was actively in the area, though we always had that in mind. We reported it and avoided those grids while law enforcement took care of it.
Something I really like about working with the government is the specific training for different situations. They’re really big on safety, which is something you don’t always get working on field jobs.
They go over the evidence to see if you are in the same area as a meth lab or a marijuana grow, and what you should
do for your own safety, which for the most part is to get out of there. You don’t want to interact with people. You just never know, it could be perfectly safe, or you could be in a situation where you’re running through the woods with guns behind you.
I always played it safe. A lot of the time I was hiking by myself, and my crew member was a couple miles away with the truck, so if I saw people on Forest Service properties I would avoid them. Things you have to learn to play by ear.
You have another story where you fell off a cliff?
It was a small cliff. I worked for several years all over California, and one of the really amazing spots I got to work was the Farallon Islands, 28 miles off the coast of San Francisco. It’s a National Wildlife Refuge, and people aren’t allowed out there anymore. There are some crazy stories about that place. Ghost encounters, all kinds of stories.
We were doing some backpack spraying to control invasive plants, which are a problem for the nesting seabirds and other wildlife. It’s crazy terrain because it’s basically this tiny little island made of rocks which easily crumble beneath your feet.
Being a diligent invasive plant management intern, I was trying to get all the weeds I could off this little area.
I thought, “This looks stable enough, I’ll be fine,” and I was for the first couple feet. But then I got too far out, and the ground crumbled out beneath me, and I fell, with my backpack sprayer, between five and ten feet. It wasn’t so bad. I landed on my feet, which is amazing, and a big clod of dirt and rock landed on my head. The most tragic part was losing my sunglasses, which I assumed would be totally broken. I found them behind a rock, and picked them up, and amazingly, they were ok!
I thought, “That’s great, I’m never going to walk on a cliff like that again.”
Another time in the Farallon Islands, an invasive plant saved my life. We did a lot of hand pulling of this plant (New Zealand spinach), because it grew everywhere and there were some places that were a bit sketchy and steep so you wouldn’t want to carry a backpack sprayer there.
So I was working my way around the island, and there are several places where plants were growing, but no one had been able to remove them because they were on a cliff face above the ocean. There was this particularly large clump of plants that I had been eyeing for a while, and finally I decided to bring my climbing shoes out to the island to see if I could reach them with better footgear. The answer was yes, I reached them, but the problem was that there wasn’t much good rock to stand on once I got out there– just a big bunch of plants. So to pull the highest clump, I got a foothold that felt okay, but basically I was on more plant than rock. I didn’t have a second foothold. I started pulling, and all was well….until it wasn’t. My only foothold slipped and I grabbed the plant with both hands. Its strong roots were the only thing keeping me from falling into the ocean before I could quickly regain my foothold and get out of there.
So the rest of that plant got to live because it saved my life and I wasn’t going to try pulling it a second time! I was a lot more cautious about my plant pulling and climbing adventures after that.
Essentially, don’t risk your life for your job, even if it’s tempting sometimes.
How do you manage your time?
It definitely changed a lot through grad school. I did my master’s, and then for a PhD, it’s a whole other level. All the time management skills I thought I had have to be accelerated a thousand fold.
Because of my funding situation, I had to start fieldwork immediately after beginning my PhD.
Basically, a week or two after I started at UF, I was interviewing field technicians who were going to be at our sites a month later. It was insane.
So I learned very early on that there was a certain amount of time I could devote to classes, there was a certain amount of time I had to devote to research, and to other things. You’re never going to have enough time to do things the way you want them to be done, so I blocked out time.
That’s a good approach. You don’t always have to schedule your time that precisely, but there are times in grad school when you have to think that far ahead, and to think realistically about how you’re going to get things done.
If you could go back to when you were in undergrad and give yourself advice, what would you say?
That’s a tough one. I don’t think I would change too much, looking back. I would definitely do a full semester abroad. I did a study abroad program, but it wasn’t for any significant amount of time. I didn’t spend a semester taking classes in a different country.
That experience is really invaluable at that age, and it prepares you to be more flexible with whatever life throws at you.
Aside from that, I think something that’s really hard to grasp when you’re an undergrad is to start thinking more independently as soon as you can. I was involved in undergrad research, but when you’re an undergrad, you’re used to being told what to do. You go to classes, and do your homework, and get grades, and do what you’re supposed to do. But advocating more for myself, and thinking about my next career steps, would have been really helpful.
I had mentors, but I needed to say, “Hey, this is what I want to do, and this is how you could help me with it.”
My advice is to think like you’re in the next career stage before you’re actually there. Try to act more like a grad student before you’re in grad school.
I’m doing that now, trying to get my mindset from being a grad student to the next stage, being a more independent researcher or a professor, or whatever else I want to do next.
You have to have a level of autonomy and creative thinking, because how your career is going to go is really all up to you, so you should take charge of it.
This interview is by Rhett Barker, and has been lightly edited by Claire Williams and Rhett Barker for clarity.
Thanks to Cat Frock for speaking with us.