Callie Schweitzer

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Portrait of Callie Schweitzer

Callie Schweitzer. Photo by US Forest Service.

Meet Callie Schweitzer, a Research Forester with the Southern Research Station’s (SRS) Upland Hardwood Ecology and Management unit in Huntsville, Ala.

Schweitzer’s research over the past 20 years has been instrumental in helping land managers understand how forest disturbances affect forest dynamics, productivity and sustainability of upland hardwood forests of the Cumberland Plateau and associated highlands.  Her ongoing research is testing different forestry techniques to produce sustainable forestry practices.

Schweitzer is the recipient of the 2017 National Silviculture Award for her “Excellent contributions in silviculture research.” The award recognizes her accomplishments: “for producing 150 publications for a variety of outlets, her involvement in the National Advanced Silviculture Program teaching foresters, and consistently bringing forest managers together to share latest research results.” She ensures that the future of the field is ongoing by mentoring graduate students.

Callie leads a tour during the Fire Oak Conference

Callie leads a tour during the Fire Oak Conference. Photo by US Forest Service.

What do you do for the Southern Research Station?

As a Research Forester, I design and implement forest stand manipulation studies (disturbances) to examine the impact of management on the vegetation in forests on the Cumberland Plateau of Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. A primary focus is to sustain oak trees. We know a lot about what is required to regenerate oak from establishment of oak seedlings to advancing seedlings into larger tree sizes. However, we still struggle with writing prescriptions, or detailing the management steps, that will result in maintaining oaks as a dominant tree species on our most productive sites.  I study the use of all available forest management tools, including timber harvesting, the use of herbicides, and prescribed fire to meet management goals. In addition, I collaborate with wildlife biologists who are interested in assessing the habitats created and changed under these different disturbances, and the impact on bird, reptile, and amphibian populations.

When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?

I was encouraged to apply for a post-doctoral position with SRS at the Southern Hardwood Laboratory in Stoneville, Miss. while I was completing my Ph.D. at Penn State University. In my letter of inquiry to the Lab, I clearly stated that I wanted to move to an area with warmer weather!  Therefore, my wish came true and for my post-doc research, I worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on the Wetland Reserve Program funded by multiple federal agencies that examined planting strategies and the success of this program in the Mississippi Delta.

Callie Schweitzer’s scientist card

Check out Schweitzer’s scientist card, part of a series from the Natural Inquirer!

Afterwards I spent two years in Asheville, N.C. as an Analyst with the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) unit working on the Tennessee state inventory.

During a field tour at the U.S. Forest Service Bent Creek Experimental Forest near Asheville, I was recruited by the Project Leader David Loftis to fill a Research Forester position, my current position today. This fulfilled my desire to return to the field to conduct applied research.

What led you to pursue this field of study?

I have always been drawn to the outdoors. I grew up on the banks of the Ohio River with a best friend who fished in mud puddles with me when we were banned from going to the river. I have often responded to this question by saying that I wanted to be “Grizzly Adams” from the late 1970s television show. We pretended to be “Grizzly Adams” honing our ‘survival’ skills. I was also inspired by the “Little House on the Prairie” books,  books with adventure and quests, and especially books that detailed wise use of the land to survive and to thrive (or not so wise use that resulted in non-survival). Through my undergraduate studies in biology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I was exposed to ecology and geography, and a professor who encouraged me to go to graduate school. I attended graduate school at Penn State, where I was able to work on projects involving soils, fish, wildlife, water issues, and forests.  The more I learned about how forest management could drive responses of other resources, the more interested I became in how forests could be manipulated to sustain those uses, driven by ecological stewardship. The dynamic nature of the hardwood forests, coupled with the changing demands on the forest, continues to provide me with challenges and adventures.

Callie participated as a speaker for the National Advance Silviculture Program.  This program trains and certifies U.S. government silviculturists using the latest research on forest management issues.

Callie participated as a speaker for the National Advance Silviculture Program. This program trains and certifies U.S. government silviculturists using the latest research on forest management issues. Photo by Dan Dey, US Forest Service.

What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?

Our research unit is not associated with any particular forest, so communication with partners is one of the few ‘typical’ things I do on a daily basis. I collaborate with forest managers who are aligned with the research questions I am pursuing. Hardwood silviculture research requires a rather large commitment of land and time. In order to implement a study, I need large blocks of forested land that can be treated (harvested, treated with herbicides or burned). I also need a commitment to the project so that I can follow research results in those areas over long periods of time. Installation of new studies requires preplanning, implementation, data collection, analysis, and publication. This includes selecting study partners and sites, field reconnaissance work, much cajoling of interested parties, design and implementation and pretreatment data collecting.  The amount of involvement with treatment implementation varies with partners, but much of my time is spent organizing and overseeing the study.  Field work to capture treatment responses is exciting and challenging; however, it seems as if, as soon as one study is implemented, another one is being planned.

I could not conduct any of this research without partners, and I am fortunate to work with partners from forest industry, state and federal agencies, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations.  I have found that active partner management, making daily efforts to communicate status and results, is rewarding and has allowed me to continue to expand my research program.

Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?

While surveying a piece of property afforested under the Wetland Reserve Program, I drove my ATV directly into the Coldwater River.  The forester I was working with that day said, “one second there she was, racing across the field, and the next minute she was gone.” I immediately sank along with the ATV. Somehow, I had the wherewithal to grab onto the back the ATV. Once we surfaced the current carried us to the other side, and besides being wet and surprised, no harm was done (other than the ATV needing some maintenance).  I honestly did not see the river as I was scanning the ground for small trees; the muddy field and the muddy river water all blended together!  During the installation of another study, the landowner offered his hunting buddies as a field crew.  When I showed up, these men, who were well-established in the community, not only worked hard all day to assist in the study installation, but at the end of the day they offered a buffet of gourmet food, complete with crystal glasses and silverware, set up with tables and chairs in the middle of the forest!  Like most field foresters, there are always exciting stories about seeing animals as well as dealing with the public in the wild.

Callie’s research in the Cumberland Plateau and associated highlands.  Here is a treatment designed to create oak woodlands on the Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky.

Callie’s research in the Cumberland Plateau and associated highlands. Here is a treatment designed to create oak woodlands on the Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky. Photo by US Forest Service.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Knowing that my efforts are contributing to sustainable management and sound stewardship.  I also enjoy spending time with and learning from the Forest Service employees in my unit in Huntsville; I am fortunate to work with some terrific people.

To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?

Many times when I am giving a field tour or a presentation the majority of the participants are men (this can be a heavy male dominated field of work sometimes). A challenge I often face is that because I am often the only woman in the group, it is easier for the male participants to remember my name but not vice versa.  I found it difficult to remember so many male names in the audiences. I have learned to make light of it and just ask people their names and move on; sometimes I pretend to remember people when, in my brain, I am wondering… what is his name?

What women have inspired you?

As a club-level tennis player, I certainly am inspired by Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova, who had integrity and grit, and who suffered to make incredible differences.

What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?

Remind yourself every day that all you can control is yourself, and tell yourself, “Yes, I can.” Science can be tedious and isolating. Any mental training that can build your capacity to be independent, to excel at self-starting, and that stimulates your creativity should be nurtured.  An insatiable appetite for reading serves scientists (and others) well.  Practice communicating your thoughts and challenging your ideas without judgement, learn how to be resilient to change, how to handle criticism, and how to uphold your ethics.  Actively solicit a mentor, and believe that you have something to contribute and dedicate yourself to it.

Ryan Sisk, Forestry Technician, installs fire probes for Callie’s prescribed fire research.

Ryan Sisk, Forestry Technician, installs fire probes for Callie’s prescribed fire research. Photo by US Forest Service.