Montana State University

MSU grad student, adventurer receives NASA fellowship to expand whitebark pine research

March 18, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU grad student Tony Chang has received NASA’s Earth and Space Science Fellowship. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

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BOZEMAN – When Tony Chang was a boy and money was tight, his dad would drop him off at a library or museum when he had to work weekends.

Long days with books and exhibits exposed Chang to NASA, and the boy who moved to the United States from Taiwan wondered if he might someday work for the federal space agency.

Now 32 and a doctoral student in the ecology department at Montana State University, Chang recently received big news from NASA.

NASA gave Chang its prestigious Earth and Space Science Fellowship, a $30,000 renewable fellowship that will allow him to expand his research into the die-off of whitebark pine. Chang has already published his findings from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the grant will allow him to do further research that adds mountain pine beetles to his previous work on climate change.

“This is highly relevant to understanding and managing whitebark pine under climate change,” said MSU ecologist Andrew Hansen, Chang’s adviser.

Chang’s fellowship is another accomplishment in a lengthening chain. In November, Chang and two collaborators published their findings about the impacts of climate change on whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The paper ran in PLoS One, an international scientific journal featuring research from all disciplines within science and medicine.

While writing that paper, Chang received an American Alpine Club “Live Your Dream Grant,” which allowed the avid rock climber to climb four peaks in a week in the Sierra Nevada. His “Big Four” adventure inspired by his climbing hero Peter Croft was featured in the club’s journal, Advocacy.

"It's been a good year," Chang commented.

Chang has had a string of good years, which gave him a unique background that equips him to carry out cutting edge science for NASA, said Hansen, co-author on the PLoS paper. Hansen also conducted the national search that brought Chang into his laboratory. He nominated Chang for the NASA fellowship.

"Tony has the most potential to contribute to ecological science and policy among the 21 graduate students I have advised over the past 25 years," Hansen wrote in his recommendation letter to NASA. "... I think he is just the type of promising young student that NASA has in mind for training the next generation of earth scientists."

At first glance, ecology might seem like an unlikely field for Chang, who was 3 years old when his family moved to California. He lived in Los Angeles for almost two decades, attended the University of California, Los Angeles and earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering instead of a field related to ecology.

But the journey becomes clearer as Chang -- also a former hotshot firefighter -- tells his story.

Wanting to live around fewer people, experience four seasons and spend more time rock climbing, Chang moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., shortly after graduating from UCLA. He then worked for the Northern Arizona Conservation Corps, an organization that aims to carry out the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. The job gave him plenty of time outdoors, got him involved with forestry and land management, and introduced him to natural systems, Chang said.

In his next position, Chang became a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service Mormon Lake Hotshot Crew. As an elite firefighter, he fought complex wildfires in 26 states, including Montana. In fact, the first time he came to Montana was to fight a 2006 fire near Butte.

“That was a big deal to me. It was a pretty big fire,” Chang said.

His years outdoors made him ponder the rationales behind land management decisions and public policies, said Chang, who minored in philosophy as an undergraduate student. He thinned trees and carried out other assignments that restored landscapes and wildlife, but he didn’t understand the reasoning behind his work.

“You don’t really understand why. That was actually a big problem for me,” Chang said.

As a result, he pursued his master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Delving into science and policy management and learning how scientific findings are transferred to land managers was a valuable experience, Chang said.

After earning his master’s degree, Chang saw Hansen’s advertisement for a research assistant who could help research changing ecosystems in relationship to climate change. Believing that managing a particular system for climate change is one of the biggest challenges in conservation today, Chang responded to the ad and was selected for the job.

“I thought this was a great opportunity to combine the things I have learned in my life and apply them to a really, really amazing ecosystem,” Chang said.

Hansen said he was impressed with Chang’s bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, his master’s degree in environmental science and policy and his remarkable dedication to using strong science to inform policy.

Chang has already developed state-of-the-art climate models for whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Hansen said. The NASA fellowship will allow him to build on that work by adding another level of realism and incorporating information about the impact of mountain pine beetles. Using information gathered by satellites is a major component.

Chang’s project fits closely with NASA goals and extends past and current NASA projects at MSU, Hansen said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu