To highlight Utah State University’s best doctoral students, the Office of Research and Graduate Studies established the USU Presidential Doctoral Research Fellows (PDRF) program. Representing our most elite students, this award is given to one student from each of our research-intensive colleges and schools. The four-year award is at least $20,000 per year plus tuition, but it’s more than a fellowship. PDRFs are given unmatched access to USU resources and assistance, from intensive grant-writing workshops to meet-and-greets with deans and administration.
This year’s students represent the exceptional work ethic and intense passion for research that is typical of a PDRF recipient. This month, learn what two PDRF students are studying in their respective fields.
It was a data set on New Jersey black bears —arguably one of the best in the world — that drew current Ph.D. student and Presidential Doctoral Research Fellowship recipient Jarod Raithel to Utah State University.
After graduating from the University of Montana with his Master’s Degree in Wildlife Biology in 2005, Raithel took time off to teach science in various public schools from Texas to Maui with his wife. He and his wife also lived in Thailand for a year where they opened a small eco lodge.
Now, under the direction of advisor Dr. Lise Aubry and through non-profit organization Bear Trust International, Raithel is analyzing the data set of over 5,200 New Jersey marked bears across 30+ years.
Although currently on the rise, the New Jersey black bear population hasn’t always done so well. In the 1940’s they were down to less than 300 bears and almost went extinct. Since then, there has been an incredible steady growth, Raithel said.
“It’s interesting because it’s a very small percentage of the black bears that are typically driving population growth,” he said. “The ones that are surviving long enough to breed, then successfully breed, then have their cubs survive are the positively contributing ones responsible for the growth.”
Raithel’s research is based off of the bears’ reliance on human resources in urban areas — garbage cans, bird feeders, and grills — and how it influences their spatial and population dynamics.
“The working hypothesis is that the bears that have become more reliant on human foods may be the super contributors driving things,” he said. “Behavior is learned. So, when a mother teaches her cubs to forage in trash cans, they are more likely to continue that behavior when they’re older.”
The implications of Raithel’s in-depth analysis could be invaluable.
“The goal of this research is to go in and provide a solid, objective, empirical evaluation of what the bear population trends have been like and what we project them to be,” he said. “I hope to produce models to help biologists make informed decisions about these bears.”
Throughout his life, Raithel has had a passion for wildlife. As an undergraduate he found many opportunities to expand his experience.
“I did an internship every summer,” he said. “I did one at the Smithsonian, another at the Natural History Museum. I looked at fossils of ducks from the Hawaiian Islands. I put radios on ducks and tracked them all across California and Oregon.”
Raithel said the internships were extremely beneficial in preparing him for future opportunities.
“Every summer I took advantage of that time off to get out in the field and gain the experience and techniques that people are looking for. I strongly recommend the same to all undergrads.”
Impressed with the graduate program at USU, Raithel said he appreciated the readily accessible resources for students and their research.
“Between the PDRF program, graduate seminar series and the graduate systems and seminars here within wild land, there are a lot of mechanisms in place to ensure that graduate students are successful and don’t fall through the cracks.”
Raithel expressed his gratitude for the opportunities made available to him through the PDRF program specifically.
“Having the fellowship is awesome. Without the stipend — since I have a child and another on the way — my research wouldn’t be possible.”
Hailing from a small town in the Sierra-Nevada foothills of California, Kirk Townsend grew up an hour from the Yosemite Valley, and said he would frequent it as a youngster on hikes or backpacking trips.
“The idea that that valley was created by glaciers just blew my mind,” Townsend said.
Now a Presidential Doctorate Research Fellow at Utah State University, Townsend has parlayed that lifelong interest in geology into a research project studying geomorphology.
Townsend’s research focuses on arroyo dynamics in Southern Utah. Arroyo—entrenched streams—that existed in the Kanab area in the late 1800s were dramatically cut down about 100 feet, which devastated agricultural interests in the area. Townsend said scientists have been studying arroyos in the area since then.
“What was exposed in the walls was stratigraphic evidence of past arroyos. We see these unconformities—different patterns of bedding—that show evidence of at least six occurrences of different arroyos cutting the land down and then filling back up,” Townsend said.
Using a process called optically stimulated luminescence—capturing sand in opaque metal tubes and then processing them to determine when the grains were last exposed to light—Townsend is working to reconstruct the arroyo cycles. He said there are two prominent trains of thought as to why these cycles happen.
“We hypothesis at this point that these are caused by climatic fluctuations, things like storm frequency and intensity and precipitation,” Townsend said. “So I’ll be going in to see if these arroyo formations correlate to any known changes in climate. However, it may be an issue of sediment overloads and disequilibrium in the landscape. This idea of “geomorphic thresholds” is something different.”
Townsend did his undergraduate degree in San Luis Obispo, CA before he became interested in the optically stimulated luminescence work of USU geology professor Tammy Rittenour. Townsend said he has had an enjoyable experience studying Utah geography and is glad that the PDRF grant has allowed him to do so.
“I wanted to get out and experience something different, and the intermountain west is a pretty spectacular area,” Townsend said. “I’m happy to be here.”
Townsend is considering a career working for either the U.S. Department of State or the Forest Service in practical land management.