Category Archives: Alumni Spotlights

Alumni Spotlight: Elizabeth Long from Mohonk Preserve

Elizabeth Long is the new Mohonk Preserve Director of Conservation Science. She is pictured here with a tray of bird specimens found and collected for research in the Daniel Smiley Research Center. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Photo by Lauren Thomas at Hudson Valley One

Scientists who find themselves in leadership roles wear a lot of different hats: researcher, project manager, program manager, human resources, grant manager, education and outreach coordinator, science communicator, financial manager, the list goes on. While some of these skills are touched upon during a scientist’s studies, the focus of a master’s or Ph.D. is so centered on developing science skills that it can be difficult to identify and use those acquired management tools down the road. SBI Alumna Elizabeth Long oversees the Daniel Smiley Research Center of the Mohonk Preserve in upstate New York. Her experiences transitioning from academia to Director of Conservation Science highlights the benefits of SBI training for those who find themselves in a wide variety of leadership roles.

Elizabeth was trained to be a scientist, and she quickly identified that this role of Director of Conservation Science required more than her science skills. Seeking that structure and methodology scientists love, she sought out SBI training. Our courses promise the skills necessary for scientists to excel in the managerial aspects of their jobs and provides tools that establish structure for abstract concepts like program sustainability and self-sufficiency.

“I had all the training for the job in terms of the science skills I needed, but in graduate school, they don’t teach you these types of skills you need when you’re running a field station or trying to keep a self-funded project up and running.”


The Mohonk Preserve is an 8,000-acre land trust, preserve, environmental research center, and environmental education center. The Preserve has been studying the biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems found in upstate New York for over 100 years. With such a strong sense of tradition in many of the Preserve’s programs, Elizabeth used matrix mapping and mission and vision statements to look objectively at some of their programs.

Through matrix mapping, Elizabeth was able to strike a balance between tradition and the viability of projects. Asking tough questions like is this project fulfilling our goals? Is it sustainable? Does it align with our mission and vision statements? This helped them keep better track of their projects and reprioritize their time and resources.

“Tradition and history need to be balanced with profitability. Nothing should be safe, and everything should be evaluated regularly. Learning to take the emotion out of programmatic decisions has been so critically important to our program”


One project that came to the forefront was digitizing the research center’s archival data. This project would tackle digitizing over 100 years of data, including almost 1,000 species and abiotic parameters. This aligned perfectly with the Mohonk Preserve Conservation Science Goal “[to] research and document information about the natural environment of the Shawangunk Ridge, provide access to the scientific information we produce, promote connections to a variety of research user groups, and further engage the general public through citizen science.” (Mohonk Preserve Strategic Plan, 2020) This project won’t end upon digitizing the past 100 years, as long as the center is generating data, there will be a need for constant updating.

Elizabeth recognized the challenges that came with this project; to properly champion this endeavor, they needed a diverse and sustainable funding portfolio. Elizabeth secured an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant to begin this work and is well-equipped with the foresight necessary to develop a financial plan that will carry this work into the future. Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s favorite part of her SBI course training was the financial management sessions. “It really changed my approach to my budget and our finances…I’m presenting our needs to funders and donors, not just a dollar amount.” We have no doubt that the lessons learned from those sessions will help Elizabeth and the Daniel Smiley Research Center secure a wide variety of funding for their digitization project.

Elizabeth pointed out how her SBI skills have been transformative in all aspects of her work, including handling unexpected challenges like a global pandemic. She pointed out how leadership roles come in all shapes and sizes in the field of science, and all of them can benefit from the structure and tools provided by SBI courses. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said, “there are a lot of skills that you already have, but you might not be thinking of them in the framework of how to keep an organization, a research center, a lab, or a research project, up and running. This course will help you reframe and organize your skills, and it will also help you identify areas where you need more training or more practice.”

Elizabeth and the Daniel Smiley Research Center is one of over 100 biological infrastructure projects the SBI Training Initiative has helped to reframe thoughts about strategic planning, financial management, and communication. We take pride in drawing parallels between the structure scientists know and love and the skills they need. We love hearing about our Alumni’s continued success and the ‘ah-ha’ moments that allowed them to make amazing strides towards programmatic sustainability. To learn more about the Mohonk Preserve and Elizabeth’s work with the Daniel Smiley Research Center, visit their website. And to learn how you can follow in Elizabeth’s footsteps and improve your space for science, check out our latest course offerings.

 

Skills to Cope with the Completely Unexpected: A COVID Perspective

Science programs often run on carefully balanced budgets. When unforeseen circumstances befall your lab, collection, digital data repository, or other research programs, what tools and resources do you have to effectively pave a path forward that keeps you afloat until the storm has passed? We’ve seen some amazing acts of ingenuity from spaces for science seeking to continue reaching their audiences and doing their work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of current events, SBI skills (strategic planning, communication, stakeholder engagement, financial management) are more important than ever. We provide you with an arsenal of tools and resources that are highly adaptive. Our course is designed to help you futureproof your program in times of growth, in times of maintenance, and in times of hardship.

“Things I learned in the Strategies for Success course, have been directly applicable to the situation we’re in right now”

Elizabeth Long, SBI Alumni 2018

Sustainability has been completely redefined in the wake of this pandemic. SBI Alumni, Elizabeth Long, oversees the Daniel Smiley Research Center of the Mohonk Preserve in upstate New York. Elizabeth has turned to her SBI toolbox when considering how the conservation science and research wing of the Mohonk Preserve, can adapt to a new normal. When asked about how she’s weathering the pandemic Elizabeth said: “Things I learned in the Strategies for Success course, have been directly applicable to the situation we’re in right now”.

When Elizabeth used the matrix mapping tool during her course, it helped her look more objectively at the programs the Research Center had dedicated resources to. When she looked at each of these programs based on the Preserve’s mission statement and the revenue each program was producing, some needed to be prioritized and some needed to be phased out. She pointed out how valuable this tool can be when making tough decisions in light of the financial hardship professionals across all industries are currently facing.

Together, we continue to battle the uncertainty this pandemic has brought to our daily lives, our monthly goals, and our yearly targets. Building programs that can sustain these conditions is no easy task. Our Strategies for Success course helps you: create budgets that tell stories of creativity and adaptability, strategically plan the future of your organization, and provides you with tools to rely on in times that require tough decisions.

If you’ve never taken our course before: We’re offering an online SBI course this fall to help you assess your situation, plan for uncertainties, and diversify your funding sources. If you want to get started ASAP, consider taking a look at the free resources we have and sign up for the October course before it fills up.

If you’ve already taken our courses: Time to break out that SBI Coursebook! If you’re struggling with sustainability, strategic planning, communication, or funding right now, your SBI Coursebook is a valuable resource and includes tools like matrix mapping, storytelling, the Kellogg Logic Model, and others. Don’t forget about the SBI team, your instructors, and your fellow SBI alumni, all valuable resources when you’re feeling stuck. Let us know what SBI skills you’ve found most useful lately for a potential feature on our twitter account!

 

 

Alumni Spotlight: Drs. Aaron Weiskittel and Brian Roth


Drs. Aaron Weiskittel and Brian Roth work for the University of Maine, Orono. Aaron is the Director for the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests (CRSF), founded in 2006, and Brian is the Program Leader for the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit (CFRU), a core research program of the CRSF, active since 1975. Both have experience working in forest industry and have a desire to see on-the-ground implementation of research, and are thus keenly suited to conducting stakeholder-driven programs unique to the university.

A few years ago, Aaron and Brian found themselves transitioning into leadership roles and being presented the opportunity to make structural changes within their programs.


A few years ago, Aaron and Brian found themselves transitioning into leadership roles and being presented the opportunity to make structural changes within their programs. Not surprisingly, one of the main challenges was lack of financial resources, and how to use those limited funds to maximize value for their stakeholders. In Aaron’s words, “As academics, we aren’t trained to be leaders or organizational strategists. The challenge is to maximize the efficiency of research dollars and do that in a way that appeases the stakeholders. We are aware of the sensitivities and differences between those groups, and we need to find commonalities.” They learned about SBI through a site visit from the Organization of Biological Field Stations, and decided that the course sounded valuable to help navigate their transitioning roles. Aaron noted that in a tight funding environment, “The colleague discount was another incentive to us both coming- that made a difference.”

“The colleague discount was another incentive to us both coming- that made a difference.”

SBI helped them develop the tools and methods to think strategically about leadership, as well as provided them the time and space to focus on personal development.  SBI is unique in that throughout the course, it gives participants the opportunity to do just that- apply tools and methods to their program. “A key element of the course was going through the materials and devoting a good portion of time to doing self exercises. Knowing we can go through a systematic process to evaluate and think about potential changes is critical” Brian says, noting that the course also highlighted communication with stakeholders about business models and the value of research. Brian has found that increased program capacity is a necessity to stay relevant and create a buffer for external events- and SBI has helped him to attract new members, and strengths, to his research cooperative.

SBI helped them develop the tools and methods to think strategically about leadership, as well as provided them the time and space to focus on personal development.

Most recently, Brian revisited the SBI workbook when cooperative members requested a business plan for his proposed idea to build capacity for the program by increasing membership outside of the state of Maine. This presented a challenge- selling that idea to members who liked things the way they were and resisted change for fear of diluting the mission. He used the logic model, did a SWOT analysis, and created a presentation to communicate the strategic decision to concerned stakeholders. “I had to speak their language and be very clear and financially driven. The SWOT analysis took on a whole new meaning when I was actually looking at our strengths and communicating advantages and threats to members both inside and outside of our cooperative.”

“You’ll get more than you expect from it. It’s a unique opportunity to reflect on where your organization is, and where you are within it. It’ll give you the tools to make the right changes, and learn new skills that most of us only get by trial and error.”

Aaron and Brian particularly enjoyed coming to SBI as a team. Being there together motivated them to work on things not only during course hours, but in the evenings before and after dinner. They also found that having two different perspectives made it easier to communicate the value of the course to their colleagues at the University of Maine. “We were on the same page, exposed to the same methodology, and can now speak the same language” says Aaron.

To those interested in taking SBI, Aaron says “You’ll get more than you expect from it. It’s a unique opportunity to reflect on where your organization is, and where you are within it. It’ll give you the tools to make the right changes, and learn new skills that most of us only get by trial and error.” Brian adds, “You aren’t alone! We are all facing similar challenges, and at SBI you can work with a bigger group going through those problems and work with a professional staff that are trained in how to get you the tools that you can use.” Both of them highly recommend SBI and have encouraged fellow colleagues at the University of Maine as well as elsewhere to attend, particularly if it can be done as a team.

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Katie Kahl and Dr. Adrian Jordaan of Gloucester Marine Station

In 2015, The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, had a pressing decision to make about the Gloucester Marine Station: sell it, or reinvest and repurpose the space. The station played host to several biological research programs over four decades since its opening in the 1970s, but was in need of major infrastructure repair and a new funding model if it was to be successful into the future. When a faculty member received an NSF grant to address those issues, UMass decided to move forward with reinventing the station into an extension outpost and cutting-edge research station. With plans for a new seawater system, dock, office spaces, and lab space- the vision of the new Gloucester Marine Station was starting to take shape.

The station sits on the Gulf of Maine, a region experiencing rapid warming and ecosystem change that are causing sea level rise and shifting fish distributions. These challenges particularly threaten Gloucester because of its strong historical links to fishing and the marine environment. The station can play a role in helping to collect data, understand the changes, disseminate the science and help the local community, and greater society, adapt to those changes. Additionally, an existing relationship with the Division of Marine Fisheries, who co-occupy the space with UMass Amherst and have a number of coordinated projects on key coastal species, help further the mission.

“We hope to strengthen this relationship and expand opportunities to other groups to help solve the critical issues facing the communities of the North Shore,” says station director, Dr. Adrian Jordaan.

Dr. Katherine Kahl came on in 2018 as one of 3 new faculty hires to help re-imagine the project. Located full-time in Gloucester, Katie had spent much of the previous year strengthening ties in a community rich with fishing history- a community that in recent decades has been challenged by increasing fishing regulations, climate change, and not surprisingly- conflict between industry and science-based decisions.

“Because you were running the colleague discount, that made the difference for us. Either of us could have come, but that fact that we were both there together has made a huge difference.”

UMass had beneficially reframed the position from a non-tenured research faculty appointment to a 12-month, non-tenured extension appointment- allowing Katie to continue to focus on partnership development and community support, as well as strategic planning- strengths developed in her prior experience working for The Nature Conservancy.The first task for Adrian, Katie, and the team was to develop a strategic plan for the revitalized marine station. She and Adrian heard about SBI though a contact at UMass and decided that the course sounded valuable to develop skills specific to that planning process.

Katie and Adrian joined us in Fort Collins, Colorado, in October 2018 for SBI. While their focus was on strategic planning, they enjoyed every aspect of the course- from the instructors, to meeting other scientists in similar roles, to the team building aspects. And both agree that having each other there was invaluable. “We were both hearing it, through different lenses, roles, and responsibilities. Having the dedicated time together when we are usually 2.5 hours apart was invaluable.” Katie still finds herself referring to the materials monthly and is finding ways to incorporate aspects of SBI lessons into the environmental leadership course that she now teaches.

One of the biggest takeaways from the course was the connection made with instructor Bill Michener, recently retired Professor and Director of e-Science Initiatives at the University of New Mexico’s University Libraries and Project Director for Data Observation Network for Earth (DataONE). Bill’s instruction led Katie and Adrian to change direction with the strategic planning process, specifically because Bill encouraged them to engage their stakeholders right from the start. After several consulting calls following the course, they were able to identify 20 impactful stakeholders to attend a planning meeting in December, which Bill facilitated. “One of the great benefits of having Bill involved was that we could all play the role of the participants. Having an impartial facilitator was very important,” reflects Adrian.

“SBI has helped us to be time specific about short- and long-term goals, identify what is urgent, and then focus on long term strategies. It’s also helped us to develop the proper metrics to monitor success,” says Katie.

In the months following the meeting, the team at Gloucester Marine Station was able to draft a complete strategic plan. The stakeholder meeting helped develop the four focus points: sustainable fisheries, climate change, blue economy, and coastal resilience- and developing the right education, research, and engagement programs for those areas. This year, the complete strategic draft will be reviewed by stakeholders, University administration, and directors of other New England marine stations.
As the Gloucester Marine Station continues to take shape, Katie reflects often on her position, the rich community that she is a part of, and how SBI helped her team shape the direction of the program.“It’s a dream job! I have all these people that want to see the marine station succeed. It’s a lot of work, but so rewarding. I would wholeheartedly recommend SBI to anyone who is taking on a similar project. It’s been the difference maker in helping us move forward quickly and efficiently.” Katie is also looking forward to our SBI- offshoot- a focused business planning course coming up this fall! To learn more, visit esa.org/sbi.  

 

Alumni Spotlight: Tom Arsuffi

Tom Arsuffi has been Director of the Llano River Field Station (LRFS) since 2005. Under his leadership, this Texas Tech outpost in Junction, Texas has grown into a full-fledged field station supporting an impressive array of research, education, and engagement programs. In 2015, Tom took part in the ESA course in Sustaining Biological Infrastructure (SBI) to hone the business and planning skills needed to maintain the field station and support the watersheds and people of the Hill Country region.

 

“Even though I had learned a lot …on the fly, I thought I needed more training to do a better job as a field station director.”

The land that makes up the Llano River Field Station has been held by Texas Tech since the 1970s, but it hasn’t always been a field station. When the university decided to use the space to develop more programs, Tom jumped at the opportunity to apply, and help grow this university outpost into a functioning field station.

Thirteen years later, LRFS is that, and more.

“We do everything field stations do,” Tom explains. That includes supporting ongoing research on the hydrology and ecology of the Llano River and surrounding areas, as well as providing courses for undergraduate and graduate students and facilities for visiting researchers.

But LRFS also runs an array of programs that serve populations beyond research scientists. Highlights of these programs include a K-12 Outdoor School, where students from Texas mega-cities are immersed in the STEM and nature of the Hill Country to combat the spread of Nature Deficit Disorder, and the development of the Upper Llano River Watershed Protection Plan, in partnership with multiple stakeholder groups.

The Llano River, home to the Llano River Field Station.

“Engagement is something I always thought was really important as a mission for the field station,” says Tom. “I thought it was really critical that the research we do has applied applications. That it’s meaningful to the public, the ranchers, the locals, the agencies, and so forth.”

Tom’s experience in ecological research prepared him well to manage the research and teaching aspects of this work. But engagement with a diversity of stakeholders requires more than the skills that are typically taught in graduate school. That’s where the ESA Sustaining Biological Infrastructure (SBI) course came in. SBI is a three-day course that trains scientists in the strategic planning, finance, and communication skills needed to sustain long-term projects.

“When I looked at SBI, I saw elements of development, of business plans, of effective science communication to lay people,” Tom says. “Even though I had learned a lot of those things on the fly, I thought to myself I needed more training to do a better job as a field station director.”

So in June 2015, Tom headed to Washington D.C. to take part in SBI. There, he spent three days working with expert faculty and a cohort of peers to develop these science-supporting techniques.

“One of the benefits of SBI is there’s a lot of hands-on types of learning. There are good speakers, there are good presentations, the workbook is fantastic—and you actually get to practice some of the skills,” Tom explains.

With other course participants, he developed a value proposition for the field station, brainstormed a diverse array of potential funding sources, and got feedback on a mock pitch to funding agencies.

“One of the benefits of SBI is there’s a lot of hands-on types of learning. There are good speakers, there are good presentations, the workbook is fantastic—and you actually get to practice some of the skills.”

And he brought these lessons home with him, focusing especially on developing proposals for foundations, the “untapped resources” for research funding.

That work proved successful. Pitching to different state agencies and foundations, Tom was able to link the field station to a diverse array of funding sources and partners. For example, LRFS worked with the Texas A&M University Water Resources Institute to gain EPA funding for an Upper Llano Watershed Protection Plan aimed at keeping the watershed healthy. The field station is also helping in the organization of the Hill Country Conservation Network, which brings together 160 local conservation groups to coordinate, maximize and assess efforts. Currently, he’s developing a collaboration with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to link Llano River Field Station to other pockets of protected land in the watershed.

This diverse engagement has been recognized through a series of awards. Recent triumphs include receiving the Kellogg Foundation Exemplary Project Award, the Universities Council on Water Resources Public Service and Education Award and the Texas Tech University Presidential Award for Engaged Scholarship.

Working with students in the Llano River.

Tom has lots of ideas about how to continue to understand and extend the field station’s role for the lives of local Texans. Today, he employs techniques like social network analysis, analyzing the LRFS position to answer the question, “how do we fit into a larger constellation of organizations?”

Because that, Tom says, is at the center of taking on today’s environmental problems. “Back when I was much younger, and there were environmental issues, you could address and solve those problems typically as an individual or a single agency—they weren’t that tough.”

Today’s problems are more complicated, and wrapped up with ever-growing populations and political division.

Tom’s advice for the situation is clear: “You can’t solve these problems by yourself, so one of the things you’d better be thinking about doing is getting to know the people and the agencies which align with or are adjacent to your area of expertise, so you can build these coalitions to solve complex issues.”

What does it take to build those coalitions?

“This is where the trust and communication comes in,” Tom says. “This is where it comes back to science communication, and that’s what the SBI is all about.”

Tom’s work at the Llano River Field Station is highlighted in this year’s SBI course as a case study, so other participants have the chance to learn from his success. To learn more about this year’s SBI course offerings, click here. Registration for our June course closes April 20th!

Participants in the 2015 SBI training course.