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Featured Student: Chris Free PDF Print E-mail

I grew up in Wallingford, PA – a cookie cutter town in the Philadelphia suburbs that doesn’t often inspire interests in the natural world – but escaped almost monthly with my family on a camping tour of the Mid-Atlantic state park system. Through camping, I came to love spending time outside and committed myself to a career of protecting and preserving the natural environment. Apparently, no one explained tenure to an 8-year-old.


Motivated by these interests, I attended Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school known for its interdisciplinary program in environmental studies and access to beautiful rural and mountain landscapes. I began my degree with interests in marine ecology and conservation and spent my freshman summer working as a divemaster in the Florida Keys. I though I had life figured out (wow, charismatic marine megafauna are so cool!) but then, in my sophomore year, I held my first mist-netted songbird and “Life Trajectory #1” was thrown out the window. In my sophomore summer, I worked as a field biologist for the Loon Preservation Committee, camping in an old-growth hemlock forest and monitoring loon populations in New Hampshire’s lakes region by kayak. “Life Trajectory #2” was looking pretty good. Only my parents wondered how long it would last.


The answer was: not very long. In my junior year fall, I took my first course in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and immediately realized how mapping and spatial analysis tools could inform conservation and management decisions. Until this moment, I hadn’t realized the importance of math in conservation biology and I could feel doors opening. I wanted to improve and apply my spatial analysis skills and spent my junior year winter working as GIS analyst for Continental Airlines identifying profitable new markets. Although I gained “Life Trajectory #2.1” from this experience, I’m not sure Continental was equally benefited (R.I.P. 2010). In my junior year spring, I left for a semester abroad in Australia, where I gained my first formal education in fish biology and marine ecology.


After six-months in Australia, I returned for my senior year with renewed interest in marine ecology and continued enthusiasm for learning and applying new quantitative methods. When I declared to my adviser, a quantitative tree ecologist, that I wanted to work on whale population dynamics, he slyly replied, “Well, trees are basically the same as whales.” Years later, he revealed that this was not meant to impact wisdom but to coax me into his lab, but his tongue-in-cheek remark has proved to be true. For my senior thesis, I developed a spatial, mathematical model of mahogany population dynamics to evaluate the sustainability of current Brazilian harvest regulations and it was this experience that solidified my interest in applied ecology and quantitative approaches to management.


“Life Trajectory #3” tropical tree ecology and management has yet to stop.

The three years between undergraduate and graduate school have been a wonderful and exciting mess. I spent two separate 3-month stints working as a GIS biologist for Audubon Alaska in Anchorage (once in summer, once in winter) to develop an objective GIS-based methodology for identifying seabird hotspots from at-sea survey data. Alaska may be my favorite place in the world – moose, cross-country skiing, northern lights, midnight sun – what more could you want? I spent six-months working as a field technician for Dauphin Island Sea Lab on the Alabama Gulf Coast assisting with fisheries independent surveys and conducting research on the impacts of the BP oil spill on sargassum and marine megafauna. The highlight of this position was almost certainly catching and tagging over 15 shark species. Finally, I spent 2 years working fulltime with Dr. Jimmy Grogan, my close friend and collaborator, on the ecology and management of big-leaf mahogany trees. Currently, I am a PhD student and NMFS-Sea Grant Population Dynamics Fellow with Dr. Olaf Jensen in the Department of Marine & Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. My research focuses on using quantitative and interdisciplinary research methods to explore solutions to aquatic conservation and management problems. I am mostly working to quantify the extent and character of illegal fishing in Mongolia and its potential impact on endangered fish species through a combination of household interviews, surveys for derelict fishing gear, and population modeling. I am also involved in a project evaluating the governance factors that make Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) successful or unsuccessful and will soon be working on a project evaluating data-poor fisheries management methods. Ultimately, my goal at Rutgers is to synthesize and expand upon these diverse interests so that I may most effectively inform natural resource management along the path towards “Life Trajectory #47”.


If you are interested in learning more, please check out the following websites:

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