Texas Tech University

ANRS/NRM Photo Contest 2016

#FromTheFieldTTU Photo Contest Winner and NRM alum, Joe Drake, discusses his path to a PhD and shares his outlook on research and his passion for photography in a personal interview with NRM staff.

joe drake

Ashley Hogan: Tell me a little about yourself and how you wound up as a graduate student in the NRM department at Texas Tech.

Joe Drake: That is a long story but it really boils down to me being a member of the "tech circuit". I was living out of the back of my truck taking various biology and wildlife jobs across the West for different organizations like the U.S. Forest Service and AmeriCorps. I was in between jobs, driving across Arizona, when Dr. Kerry Griffis-Kyle called me for an interview. I couple days later she offered me a tech position on a project that was led by Jordan Goetting, another TTU NRM graduate. I jumped onboard immediately because the project sounded so fun; the job posting had statements about preferred qualifications including "rock climbing experience" and stated some pretty out there hazards like drug smugglers and unexploded ordinance. That ended up being a great job and I learned a lot and had a blast working with Jordan for Dr. Griffis-Kyle. Kerry suggested that I apply to the University after that field season but I wasn't quite ready to stop living on the road. It was quite a good time, working for 4-5 months and then spending a month or two backpacking in whatever National Forests or Parks where around where you were. I worked for another couple years doing more field jobs, but all the while, I kept in sporadic touch with Jordan and Kerry and eventually the perfect storm of me wanting to advance my career beyond tech work and Kerry having a project that was pretty much special built for my interests occurred. I threw my application in the mix and eventually I got the email that I was picked.

AH: What is your long-term aspiration and how has that change since you received your Bachelor's degree?

JD: When I got my Bachelor's, I figured I was going to be doing the tech circuit for decades and possibly switching between biology field work with wildland firefighting. But as I progressed, I found I was really wanting to take part in the planning and design of the experiments. I also felt like I could do as well, if not better, than some of the bosses I had had along the way. I eventually began to feel frustrated by how limited I was able to contribute to the field. Sarah, my girlfriend at the time (now fiancé), kept pushing me towards the idea of a higher degree because she was supportive and saw my frustration. When the opportunity came she was a major contributor to my success. When I first showed up at TTU I thought that I only wanted a Master's Degree and then I would go back to field work. As I got deeper in the education I realized how much I love learning and eventually the idea of a Ph.D. surfaced. For my long term goals of being a research ecologist for a state wildlife agency or the Feds, it was really the only option. I realized I wanted to be not only designing individual experiments, but putting together research projects with wide ranging impacts for conservationists and the public at large. TTU really prepped my and helped me solidify my vision of what I want to accomplish. So you could say it has changed just a little bit. And now because of my time at TTU I have been able to land a Ph.D. position based out of University of Massachusetts (I never thought I was going to end up living in the Northeast) with Dr. Chris Sutherland. My fieldwork is based out of the highlands of Scotland. I am really excited to get out there next summer.

AH: What was the most challenging part of achieving your master's degree?

JD: Time management. I like doing a lot of different activities, but when you are knee deep in piles of articles you need to read and edits you need to make and manuscripts you need to write, well...time just seems to disappear. I had to learn to take the time to take care of myself, do my "extra-curriculars", and get my work done. As much as spending time getting work done was important, I had to do other things too. I would go camping or backpacking, work on art projects, grab a drink with my friends, or just take off with Sarah to some random spot on the map we had never been too. And everywhere I would go I would take my camera along. Photography (and all the things that I was doing to get to the photos) really helped me stay sane.

AH: What is your favorite component of your research or, what is your favorite part of research?

JD: All of it. Except the writing. Well, I like that a little too. But just like most people that get into this line of work, I love being outside surrounded by nature and doing hands on work with habitat or animals. I love the fieldwork and being sweaty and tired at the end of the day from a 14 hour trudge through the wilds. I have to admit it is quite exhilarating though to be back in the lab and have that moment when you analyze all the collected data and can say "Hey, look at what I figured out!" Being able to describe a part of nature that no one else has yet, that discovery, definitely helps drive my work.

AH: How does your interest in art and photography intersect with your identity as a scientist? Alternately, does your scientific research inform or shape your creative interests?

JD: For me, art and science don't necessarily intersect so much as overlap, and they overlap a lot. The creativity to solve a scientific problem comes from the same place as my creativity to capture a photograph. It takes a lot of problem solving, a lot of patience, and a lot of stubbornness. I often find myself saying, "Hmmm, well that didn't work. How do I make it work?" This often happens as I am trying to get my computer to play nice with a GIS program or if I am trying to get a long exposure set up just right for a night shot of a desert landscape. I just keep trying until my failures point me in the direction of success. My techniques for science and art often overlap too. I like to try and get landscapes photos that tell stories besides just being pretty; I like to get close up on situations and shoot from perspectives that I don't normally see. My science has to tell a story to be compelling and useful. The data often points to ideas I had never thought of. I try to look at the world in a way that no one else has done yet.

joe drake

Joe Drake graduated from Texas Tech in 2016 with an MS in Natural Resources Management. He is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Conservation in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Ashley Hogan is a student assistant in the Department of Natural Resources Management. She is majoring in International Economics and minoring in NRM. In December 2016, she will begin working for the USDA.