By Summer Allen
Today’s college students will play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change on biodiversity, and students that work with Portland State’s Institute for Natural Resources (INR) are gaining skills that set them up for success in future research or conservation management careers.
INR maintains the state’s most comprehensive database of rare plants and animals, and state and federal agencies and other organizations use INR’s data to make policy decisions that help protect rare species in Oregon. INR employs both undergraduate and graduate PSU students, including interns from the Institute for Sustainable Solutions’ Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) climate resilience internship program, to help do this important work.
“We’re able to get them out in the field occasionally and get them experience working with state and federal agencies that are big employers in our field,” says Eleanor Gaines, director of the Institute for Natural Resources’ Oregon Biodiversity Information Center. “In our field, just getting that degree isn’t going to get you very far. You have to have field experience or get a Master’s degree so we help students figure out that next step.”
One of the students working with INR this year is Reagan Thomas, an undergraduate student who transferred to PSU from Portland Community College in the fall of 2020. He is working toward a major in environmental science and management and minors in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and geography.
Thomas is compiling data about rare species in Oregon from surveys by the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service and other researchers. He’s also using his GIS skills to map where these species live.
Thomas says his experience with INR has helped him solidify subjects he’s learned in his PSU coursework, develop new technical and professional skills and make connections with researchers at agencies across the state.
Besides developing these skills, Thomas is also learning about species of plants and animals in the Northwest that few people know about.
“I like to search for Google images of the species because a lot of times I’ve never heard of it. They are often really adorable or alien-looking,” says Thomas. “It’s fun to get that exposure to different species and then learn as much as I can through my work.”
He says one of his favorite new-to-him species is the kit fox. “Even when they’re adults, they look like puppies,” he says. “They’re extremely cute.”
But he’s also gained an appreciation for the more obscure rare species that aren’t as immediately endearing.
“There are so many species that don’t get the recognition because they don’t have the cute face or aren’t charismatic in some way that are also extremely important for ecosystem function,” says Thomas. “Without tracking populations of these species, we can’t know how changes to their habitat are affecting their viability, and if those species are lost altogether, there may be serious ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. So I think [working at INR has] given me a finer grain look at why biodiversity is important.”
After he graduates next spring, Thomas will be going back to school to get his master’s degree. He hopes to become a government researcher who studies coastal marine ecology and restoration in the context of dam removal, and he thinks his experience with INR will help make this a reality.
“This is a really great opportunity; I’m very grateful for it,” says Thomas. “I think it’ll be an important part of my development as a researcher.”
And he recommends other students seek out opportunities to get research experience at PSU.
“I would encourage other undergrads to keep an eye out for positions like this because it really brings home a lot of things we learn in our coursework,” says Thomas. “It’s a great resume booster, and even if that weren’t the case it’s really interesting work.”