SMAST PhD student Robert Wildermuth
Robert Wildermuth will soon begin a postdoc position with the Future Seas team at the University of California Santa Cruz & the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. (Photo courtesy of R. Wildermuth.)
Feature Stories 2021: Robert Wildermuth '21: Nurturing the ecosystem
Robert Wildermuth '21: Nurturing the ecosystem

PhD candidate Robert Wildermuth, talks about his interests in conservation, experiences as a student at UMassD's School for Marine Science & Technology, & his plans for the future.

April 22 is Earth Day. And as many students prepare to graduate next month, we’re taking this opportunity to connect with PhD candidate Robert Wildermuth about his ongoing contributions and efforts toward conservation, student experiences, and plans for the future.

Nurturing the ecosystem

“I’m interested in conservation and ensuring that we are using our natural resources responsibly, so that’s why I chose to work with marine ecosystems,” says Robert who is studying Living Marine Resources Management at UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology.

Modeling is a major focal area of Robert’s research, and this interest led him to understand that models are actually communication tools, and the way they’re put together reflects how the people who built them think. He was awarded a national marine science graduate fellowship for his research, which supports NOAA's ocean goals with regard to healthy and sustainable marine fisheries, habitats, and ecosystems, becoming 1 of 6 recipients to receive the highly competitive NOAA Fisheries Sea Grant Population and Ecosystem Dynamics Fellowship in 2018. His project, ‘Performance evaluation of qualitative and Bayesian network social-ecological models for use in Integrated Ecosystem Assessment,’ aimed to provide ecosystem assessment models as tools to support marine resource management decisions.

Commitment to leadership & service

During his time as a PhD student, Robert has immersed himself in a variety of leadership roles. As a Student Representative for SMAST’s Graduate Student Association, he served as a liaison between students and the Dean’s office, assisted with the establishment of an SMAST student scholarship, and organized various events–including new student orientations, the Intercampus Marine Science (IMS) Research Symposium, and skill-building workshops. ”By focusing on building benefits for the students through a focus on career opportunities and transferrable skills, as well as bringing awareness to the hurdles students from diverse backgrounds face when entering grad school and science fields, I was able to capture the interest of the students as well as the school administration to bring these events to life.”

He has also co-chaired the SMAST Student Review Group of the Intergovernmental Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Stock Assessments, which involved reporting SMAST’s review findings to ICES in Copenhagen, Denmark. “These reviews affect the advice provided to fisheries management bodies in European member states. This opportunity allowed me to see how fisheries management works outside of US policy and governance structures.”

A supportive community

Robert acknowledges that pursuing a doctoral degree is highly intensive. But the number one thing that kept him motivated, he says, was the chosen family he found through the SMAST Graduate Student Association. “Being able to connect and socialize with other students from our program outside of the lab or classroom helped so much when I felt lost in my research or alone so far from home,” says the Grand Junction, Colorado native. “Being involved with the SMAST Graduate Student Association helped me to give back to my community and meet lifelong friends and colleagues.”

The faculty of experts at SMAST along with their practical experience and connections to researchers outside academia have also benefited him in his research endeavors. “I’ve been lucky to have funding support to have my research and education program work together closely,” he says. “The nature of my research requires I understand many topics across a diverse set of specialties, so I’ve been able to draw information and inspiration from the various classes that are part of the IMS program.” Robert also says his research at UMass Dartmouth has been incredibly collaborative.

Next steps

Next month, Robert will defend his dissertation, which is titled “Supporting Integrated Ecosystem Assessment Under Model Structural Uncertainty.” His work has direct application to studies done in the larger world of ecosystem modeling and ecosystem-based management. “I’ve been able to meet future coauthors and colleagues through my research program at SMAST and will be able to build on the tools and knowledge I’ve gained here in my next position,” he says.

And what’s next? Robert will soon begin a postdoctoral position with the Future Seas team at the University of California Santa Cruz and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center where he will be working with other quantitative ecologists there to understand how pelagic fish (like herring, sardines, and anchovies) are shifting their ranges due to climate change. “As part of this collaboration, we’ll explore how we can build management rules and processes to account for this while maintaining healthy fish populations and a strong fisheries sector.”