Wisconsin dreamin’: Looking back and ahead on my career in ecology

Joe Pitti
Another great sunset after a long day of fishing over Partridge Lake. Credit: Joe Pitti.

Joe Pitti, a student at Colorado State University, is part of Cary Institute's 2019 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) cohort. The REU program, supported by the National Science Foundation, gives undergraduate students an opportunity to participate in hands-on research projects alongside scientist mentors. This summer, Joe is working with Cary mentors Chris Solomon and Alex Ross at the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC) in Land O' Lakes, Wisconsin to study angler dynamics and freshwater fishery management.

Joe tells us about his summer research and the path that led him here:

As freshwater fisheries slowly collapse, I am invested in understanding angler dynamics and finding novel management approaches to conserve and improve freshwater angling experiences for everyone, everywhere. This summer, I am using an agent-based model, a kind of computer simulation technique, to explore the implications of policy aggregation for fisheries management in northern Wisconsin. Freshwater fisheries have always been important to me from a recreation standpoint, and I enjoy creating models to think about freshwater systems in exciting new ways.

A beautiful Muskie found its way into my net during electrofishing. Credit: Colin Dassow.

In many ways, I feel that my career path up to this point has been deliberate and planned, but many days this summer have felt like a waking dream. The thought that I am building a fisheries model in northern Wisconsin as an REU student for Cary Institute still hasn’t completely registered in my mind. Although I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around that idea, it has pushed me to think more deeply about how I ended up here.

I have been interested in nature for as long as I can remember. One of my fondest memories from growing up is searching for bugs in my backyard to keep in makeshift terrariums. I was amazed by the number of unique insects that could live together happily in my mother’s small garden. As I became older, I held onto that sense of wonder towards the natural world. But I never thought my interest in nature could be applied to other aspects of my life, beyond recreation.

A typical day at the office. Credit: Joe Pitti.

I struggled with my identity and passions while in high school, which left me feeling confused and directionless. This was until one of my family members, a fisheries biologist, invited me to spend a week fishing with him. While fishing, we talked about his career in natural resources. It sparked my desire to revisit that sense of ‘backyard-bug-hunting’ wonder and see where it could take me.

After starting my track in fisheries biology at Colorado State University, I fell in love with ecological fieldwork. One of the most surprising joys of ecology was learning that it is an art as much as it is a science. Many people think that science is rigid and emotionless, but the opposite is true. As much as scientists love precise and accurate data, science is riddled with subjectivity. Aging fish, designing experiments, and communicating findings are three of the most challenging aspects of ecology for me because rarely is there a single ‘correct’ answer or way to proceed. This represents a dynamic side of ecology that is often underappreciated.

A beautiful sunset over Irving Lake. Credit: Joe Pitti.

Although many variables played into my decision to join the Cary REU program, I felt especially connected to the program’s focus on translational ecology. Because of this emphasis, I feel like I have truly experienced what it is like to be an ecologist – from fieldwork and statistical analysis to communicating results for various audiences. Although living in northern Wisconsin still feels like a dream, the REU program has helped me decide to turn my passion for ecology into a reality.

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