Jesse Wheeler travels to national parks from Maine to Virginia, taking inventory and assessing the health of native and invasive flora. At each location, he takes measurements of trees, photographs shrubs to document their coverage, assesses the presence of invasive species and takes soil samples.
It’s all in a day’s work for Jesse, who is employed as a biological technician with the forest health monitoring team of the National Park Service. The data he collects is used to evaluate the well being of park ecosystems by looking at things like deer management, global climate change’s impact on plants and overall forest health.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s the perfect job. AUNE really helped to prepare me for this work. It was a really perfect transition, and pretty easy for me, from the academic to the real world.”
Searching for the Perfect Field
Jesse, who grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine, always loved science and conservation biology, but it took him a while to decide upon the focus of his life’s work. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology in 2001 from the University of Vermont in Burlington, he set out to explore various specialties within the environmental field.
He worked as a research assistant in the fisheries department of the University of Vermont’s School of Natural Resources and did a post-grad internship with the Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine on the distribution of the lobster population on the Maine Coast. He managed plant re-vegetation at Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor and monitored loons for the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary/Biodiversity Research Institute on Mount Desert Island.
As he considered furthering his education, he investigated graduate schools online. After discovering Antioch University New England, he attended a visiting day at AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies. But he remained unsure of what he wanted to do, and ended up heading to Bellingham, Washington, where he worked for two years as a land surveyor for a private engineering company.
Fortunately, when Jesse had visited the AUNE campus, he met Laura Andrews, director of admissions. “She stayed in touch,” he said. “I flew out from Washington for an interview for the Conservation Biology program, was accepted and moved back east. I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I was interested in plant ecology.”
Finding a Niche
At AUNE, Jesse became intrigued when Professor Rachel Thiet told him about a project of the Cape Cod National Seashore. In the restored salt marshes of Hatches Harbor in Provincetown, Massachusetts, tidal flow was restricted by the pervasiveness of invasive plants, particularly phragmites, an Asian reed grass.
In collaboration with Rachel and National Seashore plant ecologist Steve Smith, Jesse launched a research study to determine the effects of eradicating the phragmites by both burning and small-scale manual cutting, and restoring the vigor of native plants, or halophytes. The project, which he carried out over the course of two summers with funding from a 2008 grant by the Cape Cod National Seashore Nickerson Graduate Student Fellowship, became the focus of his thesis.
Jesse was surprised to discover that burning the reed grass was not effective, though manual cutting did provide results.
“What I was looking at was, How far do you have to get in to the phragmites before you don’t see native plants growing?” he said. “We found out that in cut areas, there’s a higher abundance and diversity of native halophytes. The phragmites’ vigor changed with salinity. I recommended a larger-scale cut to allow better establishment of the wrack line.”
In spring 2010, Jesse was hired for a seasonal position with the National Park Service. He has since moved into a permanent crew leadership role and gained the ensuing additional responsibilities of data analysis and management.
Having completed his AUNE coursework and having submitted his thesis, he graduated in December 2010.
“I’m really enjoying the work, he said. My ES courses in GIS, watershed dynamics and natural-resource inventory were all geared towards looking at things holistically, answering questions, taking into account the great picture, and applying it. That really helped. AUNE prepared me well for the job.”