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Working at the Boundary of Science and Land Management

Alix assists on a prescribed burn in Cades Cove. Photo credit: Matt Jernigan

Alix assists on a prescribed burn in Cades Cove. Photo credit: Matt Jernigan

Alix Pfennigwerth, a vegetation ecologist and UT EEB alumna (’11, ’17), has spent the past several years working in land management and science with the US Geological Survey (USGS) and National Park Service (NPS). Now, she works as a biologist with the Inventory & Monitoring Program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). She credits a lot of her success today to her time spent in EEB.

“I often tell people that earning my master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at UT was one of the hardest but most rewarding things I’ve done in my life,” Alix said.

Working at the boundary of science and land management, Alix wears many hats. Her primary responsibility at GSMNP is to design, implement, and manage a variety of long-term vegetation monitoring projects, but she also has many collateral duties. Alix collects ecological data from one of the park’s 160 long-term forest monitoring plots, teaches visitors and students about wetland ecology, and consults with park managers to help them carry out park activities in an ecologically sound manner. Sometimes, she also swings a Pulaksi on a prescribed burn fire line on trails with the park’s Search and Rescue team.

“The diversity of my work as a federal scientist is part of what I find so rewarding,” Alix said. “Due to my scientific training, I can be confident that I’m conducting the highest-caliber, most meaningful research and monitoring possible. I also find it incredibly satisfying to be able to apply that science to help answer the many questions and decisions that park managers are faced with every day.”

Alix credits EEB for preparing her for her career path. Some she realized at the time, but other things took a bit longer for her to appreciate fully. One easy connection is the successful grant proposals and papers Alix authored in graduate school and her continued success in writing grant proposals, scientific papers and agency reports. Alix also served as the undergraduate lab coordinator throughout graduate school in Jen Schweitzer’s lab. She credits this experience as well.

“I’ve continued to hire, manage and mentor interns and technicians with the USGS and NPS, and I’m comfortable doing this because I learned how to in Jen’s lab.”

During graduate school, Alix sought out roles and experiences that felt meaningful and relevant to her interests and career, such as serving on the board of the nonprofit Tennessee Invasive Plant Council, volunteering weekly with the GSMNP vegetation monitoring program, and presenting at the Natural Areas conference. This may have made an already busy graduate student busier, but Alix feels strongly that taking on these roles set her up for success.

“Success is accomplishing the many essential duties of a federal scientist, such as effectively managing interns and staff, communicating and collaborating productively with scientists and non-scientists, managing time and resources,” Alix said. “It is also being passionate, but level-headed about your work.”