Graduate students who get their advanced degrees from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) emerge with a high level of technical expertise for the job at hand, according to Chad Rittenhouse, a faculty member in that department. He says these “hard” skills are the benefits of STEM training.

“However, there is a gap between theory and practice,” Rittenhouse said. With new funding from USDA, NRE is trying to bridge the chasm by cross-training three new doctoral forestry students.

The resulting training, which includes “soft” skills like decision-making, problem solving and communication, aims to make research relevant and equip the students for success in professional forestry management positions. This approach collaborates with government agencies, like DEEP, and businesses, like Eversource Energy, so that students gain practical experience in bringing technical knowledge to the real world of economics, culture and policy.

Visiting Assistant Professor Rittenhouse is the project director for the $238,500 Food and Agricultural Sciences National Needs Graduate and Postgraduate Fellowship Grant, or National Needs Grant for short. There are five NRE co-PDs.

The majority of the funding will go to three PhD students who started in the fall of 2014. These PhD Fellows will receive three years of support for forest-related research and NRE course work. Rittenhouse said the program hopes to “produce professionals who are able to connect the dots, whether those dots are forests and wildlife or people and policies.”

Three examples of engaged scholarship

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Janet Rice Barclay

One of the Fellows, Janet Rice Barclay, is connecting the dots between forests and fresh water resources. Nitrogen and chloride have infiltrated shallow water and are slowly moving to streams and rivers. Barclay is investigating how much of these substances is present and how quickly they travel through the groundwater. This research will contribute to improved water quality in Long Island Sound. Ashley Helton, an assistant professor, co-advises Barclay with Rittenhouse.

Barclay said, “The National Needs Grant is having a tremendous impact on my education by exposing me to natural resource management concepts I might never have encountered.”

The grant is valuable for PhD student Danielle Kloster, as well. She said, “Working with the group has given us an opportunity to work with people from outside of our disciplines as we formulate our research questions.”

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Danielle Kloster

Kloster said, “I am looking at people’s attitudes toward having their trees removed by utilities and toward having those trees used in some way, like for sawlogs, mulch and pulp, rather than left for firewood or taken to a landfill.” Kloster will be working as part of Stormwise, a management program that tries to reduce tree-related storm damage to power lines. Anita Morzillo, an assistant professor, advises Kloster.

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Mauri Liberati, as she was studying swamp sparrow breeding ecology near Woodland Beach, Delaware. Photo by Mike Liberati.

The third student, Mauri Liberati, is focusing on wildlife and fisheries conservation within sustainable forest ecosystems. She thinks that the state’s unique characteristics make it an opportune place for her research. According to Liberati, Connecticut has experienced unprecedented forest regeneration in the past century. Currently, it ranks fourth in population density and is 60 percent forested.

Using geospatial techniques, she wants to develop solutions so that forested land can support multiple uses by humans while maintaining viable habitats for fish and wildlife species. “This opportunity is incredibly important for my education and career aspirations.” Liberati said. Rittenhouse co-advises Liberati with Jason Vokoun, an associate professor.

Five courses for academic training

Coupled with the Fellows’ research projects are five new graduate courses. They are:

  • Sustainable Natural Resources Management
  • Decision Methods in Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Communications for Environmental Decision Makers
  • Geospatial Techniques for Environmental Management
  • Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities and Regions

In addition, NRE is offering a Sustainable Environmental Planning and Management online graduate certificate program, which makes the new graduate courses available to anyone with a bachelor’s degree.

With the forestry management students off to a strong start, Rittenhouse is thinking about possibilities for the future throughout the NRE disciplines. “Our hope is to expand our idea from forests into natural resources and environmental management so that people interested in water resources, agriculture, marine fisheries and biofuels, can acquire the skills they need to be successful,” Rittenhouse said.

By Patsy Evans