BOZEMAN -- Tony Chang says his parents were skeptical when he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and then spent the next three years basically living out of his car while working for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and several conservation corps.
But those experiences, followed by two more academic degrees, turned the 2017 Montana State University graduate into a scientist with such unique skills that he has just been awarded the premier postdoctoral fellowship in conservation science.
Chang was one of five recipients of a 2017 David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship, which will give him $55,000 a year for two years, plus $40,000 for research. With it, he will conduct an innovative research project on forest disturbances and how they affect water supplies across the West. He will collaborate with researchers at Conservation Science Partners Inc., Colorado State University and NASA.
"It worked out," Chang said, referring to the unusual path that led to his second fellowship in two years.
Chang used his first fellowship – a renewable NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship for $30,000 a year for three years -- to fund his doctoral research into the die-off of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Chang earned his Ph.D. this spring in MSU’s Department of Ecology in the College of Letters and Science under the mentorship of Professor Andrew Hansen, director of MSU’s Landscape Biodiversity Lab.
With his latest fellowship, Chang will use state-of-the-art modeling to determine on a massive scale how disturbances in forests affect the availability of water. He will use satellite images and other sophisticated tools to count nearly every tree -- dead or alive -- in the West. He will then see how many trees are lost over a year to such things as insects and fire. Finally, he will analyze the data to see how those losses affect water availability for people.
Trees influence the speed that snow melts and runs down mountains. They also influence rates of evaporation from the ground surface and water transpired through their leaves. But Chang will take a much deeper look at the exact relationship between forests and water. He wants his research to benefit natural resource managers as they develop strategies for regional forests and water conservation.
"In the past 30 years, land management protocols, climate change and land use have substantially changed the frequency and magnitude of disturbance regimes within forest ecosystems," Chang explained. "Landscape-scale disturbances such as drought, wildfires and insect outbreaks can radically change forest structure resulting in impacts on watersheds that may affect water quantity/quality for natural resource use.
"Although many studies exist analyzing the impacts of forest disturbances on a single or limited subset of watersheds, a national scale analysis with an increased sample set can vastly improve inferences and better characterize general patterns of watershed impacts," Chang said.
In addition to providing a critical tool for natural resource managers, he wants his research to benefit everyday citizens, Chang said.
"My hope is to try to develop a way to bring the importance of public land to the ordinary person," he said. "I think there's a disconnect between urban-centered populations and the value of our natural forests. Given the drought in California and a lot of the West, there is relevance to better understand our forests in terms of how they affect our water situation, how much water we have and how much water we will have available for human use."
Chang saw that disconnect for himself after moving to the United States from Taiwan at age 3 and growing up in Los Angeles. He said urban dwellers tend to think of forests as pretty places where they go to play. They don't think of forests as regulating the water that directly relates to their lives.
"I was an indoor kid," Chang said. "I spent a lot of time in front of a television set, not knowing the value of being outside until later in my life. When I got the opportunity to go outside during my college years, it was pretty profound for me."
He became an avid rock climber who received an American Alpine Club "Live Your Dream Grant" which allowed him to climb four peaks in a week in the Sierra Nevada. He became an elite wildland firefighter who fought complex wildfires in 26 states. He worked a variety of jobs that had him literally on the ground level of implementing federal policies for restoring landscapes and wildlife on public lands.
In fact, he doesn't think his new fellowship and the opportunity it provides would have been available to him without public lands, Chang said.
Brett Dickson, president and chief scientist of Conservation Science Partners Inc. in Truckee, California, said, "To me, Tony is really a model Fellow.
"As a former engineer, he comes from a nontraditional professional background but knows how to put this same background to use in solving pressing conservation problems," Dickson said. "In this context, he's taking advantage of opportunities to be creative and quantitative, but also truly innovative with his work.
"I believe Tony was selected as a 2017 Fellow, in part, because of his passion for the environment, his gentle but insightful nature, the scope and research of the research project he is pursuing, as well as his willingness to take risks in his career,” Dickson said. "This spirit of innovation and 'conservation entrepreneurialism' reflects the vision David H. Smith had for the fellowship program.”
Dickson, who will be one of Chang's collaborators, received the Smith fellowship in 2008. He used his to form Conservation Science Partners, a nonprofit organization that now employs or works with eight current and former Smith Fellows.
"What's great about the fellowship is once you become a Fellow, you always are a Fellow," Dickson said. "There are now over 70 Fellows from all over the world, and they help to form one of the most important professional networks in conservation biology, next to the Society for Conservation Biology itself."
Hansen said Chang stood out to receive the fellowship because, "He developed a very innovative proposal to use machine learning to map tree canopy cover at fine spatial scales nationally and will use this to look at the influence of forest disturbance on hydrology."
Hansen added that Chang has an "extraordinary ability to do sophisticated technical analyses on big data sets. He networks very well with others and has built a large number of collaborators."
Chang said MSU was an excellent place for developing his ability to analyze conservation issues across large landscapes. Hansen, an expert at such projects, conducted the national search that brought Chang into his laboratory.
"It definitely developed me more as an ecologist and environmental scientist," Chang said of his time at MSU. "I have modeling background in engineering. Applying that to environmental problems, I developed that at MSU."
Chang earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 2005 at the University of California, Los Angeles. He earned his master's degree in environmental science and policy in 2012 from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
He will move to Truckee in August and begin his fellowship in September, Chang said. Collaborating with him, in addition to Dickson, will be Sangram Ganguly from the NASA Ames Research Center and Bay Area Environmental Research Institute. Chang's academic adviser will be David Theobald, senior scientist at Conservation Science Partners and an adjunct faculty member at Colorado State University.
In the meantime, Chang said he will spend the summer continuing to turn his doctoral dissertation into articles that he will submit to scientific journals. He has already published several papers, including one in which he was the lead author. That 2014 paper explained the impacts of climate change on whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It ran in PLoS One, an international journal featuring research from all disciplines within science and medicine.
Contact: Tony Chang, firstname.lastname@example.org