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Ecology and the Environment

Do you like to use mathematics to solve real problems?

Would you like to learn more about the Earth's natural resources and how to manage them better?

Do you want to become involved in projects where you're not always sitting at a desk?

If so, you should consider becoming and ecological/environmental statistician. Here are some of the issues you might encounter in such a job:

  • How many fish are in a lake? What fishing limits would maintain current fish populations? Should fishing at the lake be restricted to catch-and-release? Should fishing be banned while the population rebuilds? Should the lake be stocked?
  • Should farmers plant windbreaks (trees planted along the borders of fields) to increase the number of species and abundance of birds and insects? Would these increased numbers provide enough protection to the crop so chemical controls could be reduced or even avoided? Do windbreaks need to surround a field, or is one or two sides enough?
  • Can fertilizer be applied at varying rates within a field depending on the changing levels of fertility within the field? Would such an approach decrease the amount of fertilizer removed by run-off or leaching and thereby reduce surface or underground water contamination?
  • How do plants spread? Is a new species of weed that was accidentally introduced able to out-compete existing species? What are the best methods to control weeds without damaging other plants?

Statisticians play a major role in addressing each of these operations. First, they help establish methods for collecting data. They not only need to know whether the data can help answer the question, but also must consider whether it is physically possible to collect the data.

For example, the question could be "How many deer are in the state?" Ideally, each deer in the state would be counted, but this is obviously impossible. What, then, is the best method of counting some deer so the statistician can get a good estimate of all deer in the state?

Once the data are collected, the statistician helps analyze and interpret them. For the deer question, for example, this would involve getting an estimate of the state's deer population. The statistician must then determine how close that estimate is likely to be to the true deer population.

Because each question is unique, each requires careful thought for data collection, analysis, and interpretation. That is what makes the life of a statistician so exciting!

Opportunities for ecological/environmental statisticians have been increasing. Most states employ wildlife statisticians. Units of the federal government that deal with natural resources, such as the National Forest Service and Environmental Protection Agency, also make use of statisticians. The same is true for companies that collect environmental data.

Increasingly, companies need statisticians to help assess how a new product or plant will affect the surrounding environment. Scientific researchers also work with statisticians, often at universities, to design experiments that will answer basic questions about the environment