02 July 2021

Striving to Excel

Written by: Elizabeth Renner

To say that it has been a busy couple of weeks would be an understatement, and I was floored when I realized today that my fellowship is already halfway through! As I mentioned in my last post, I’m working on a project remotely as a DFP with the Southern Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office using Bureau of Reclamation water quality data to study how the quagga mussel invasion in Lake Mead has impacted Razorback Sucker, a critically endangered fish. I’ve been tasked with organizing a massive database and then analyzing the data to determine 1) whether the quagga mussel invasion has significantly impacted the amount and species composition of the algae and zooplankton in Lake Mead, 2) whether these changes are influenced by changing environmental factors like lake temperature and water levels, and 3) whether these changes have significantly impacted the population of genetically pure razorback sucker in the reservoir.

Unfortunately, fisheries science is often anything but glamorous or fast-paced. Data entry and statistical analysis can be awfully tedious affairs. One can get lost spending hours on re-labeling columns and writing functions to standardize naming conventions alone. I’ve spent the past two weeks of my fellowship painstakingly shoveling my way through folder after folder of old, messy, disorganized water quality data. When I first received the data for my project, my jaw dropped and I audibly groaned when it became clear that the data were organized in individual folders for every station, for every month, for every year, for twenty years of data collection (muffled screaming). If anything, the exercise has emphasized for me the importance of being proactive about data cleaning and database management best practices!

All of this shoveling was not in vain, though, because I’ve finally reached the point where I have multiple well-organized datasets to run statistical analyses in R, a statistical coding software. I’m an aquatic community ecologist by training, so I specialize in analyzing how different environmental factors like water temperature or nutrient concentrations affect the relative abundances of different organisms in a community, like a fish community or phytoplankton community. To me, it’s fascinating to ponder which of these factors govern these relationships, and why some patterns only occur in certain months out of the year. I appreciate that my supervisor also seems to enjoy pondering these patterns with me, and I feel like a kid in a candy store now that I have my paws on a new dataset to explore and play around with. My next tasks are to analyze these data, write a report to summarize our findings, and then present these findings to USFWS leadership in Region 8 at the end of the month.

When I’m not busy pouring over spreadsheets, I’ve been learning and networking with USFWS personnel and fellow DFPs virtually. Each DFP is assigned to a career mentor within the agency, and mine tasked me with networking with at least six USFWS fisheries biologists before the end of the summer. Last week I had a wonderful virtual discussion with Nick Utrup, a fisheries biologist, and the species recovery lead for the endangered Topeka Shiner. Nick and I chatted for over an hour about our similar paths into fisheries and our shared passions for native fish conservation. He proved to be a wealth of information about the federal hiring process and the pros and cons of a career with the USFWS. Overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my DFP experience so far, and I look forward to all the exciting learning opportunities I’ll have in the next six weeks.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office

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