Since second grade Josh Nickelson knew he wanted to work in a park or a forest setting when he grew up. Last month, he joined the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) as a field scientist and is looking forward to assisting land owners and organizations with various forest management projects.
He recently answered some questions about his career, his new role in INHS, and his advice for those just starting out in the field.
What is your background before coming to work at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS)?
I earned my bachelor's & MS in forestry from SIU Carbondale. My working career began with the Indiana Division of Forestry as an inventory forester. After moving back to Illinois in 2018 I began working at the Henson Robinson Zoo as their grounds foreman/horticulturalist in addition to running my own consulting forestry business.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at INHS?
I am looking forward to getting back into the field and assisting landowners and multiple organizations with a wide array of forest management projects.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
In second grade my answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up was a park ranger. While that has changed a bit through the years, I have just always known that I wanted to work in a park or forest setting. Growing up in the heart of agriculture has made me always appreciate the time I am able to spend in the woods.
Who or what drew you to study forestry?
I was on a trip to southern Illinois when I was 13 and I discovered that the college (SIU) had a forestry department. I fell in love with the Shawnee National Forest then and never looked back.
What are common misconceptions about your career?
I feel that foresters get labeled as either a "tree-hugger" or a "wood monger". We have devoted our education and careers to learning as much as we can about a forest (not just the standing trees) and the management we prescribe is specific to each situation that presents itself in the woods. We consider landowner goals, wildlife habitat, soil conservation, biodiversity, residual stand after treatment, invasive species, timber markets, and so much more before managing forests.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
The most common difficulty I have encountered is explaining to landowners why public lands are being managed in a particular way. A timber harvest, for instance, can be viewed as scar on the land, but when done properly, can create necessary habitat, improve understory conditions, and generate funds for additional land acquisition and necessary management.
What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
I would like for people to understand how much time and effort goes into research and reporting. Forestry, specifically, is a very slow science often taking years or decades to see the true benefit of the results from management practices. Trusting the science is important in this field. There has been a lot of work completed in the past century that has set land managers up for success if we trust the science and adjust accordingly as new obstacles may emerge.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
Stick with it! It can be a frustrating process but seeing a project through to completion is one of the most rewarding experiences. Be flexible and know that field work will never go according to plan!