Sometimes, it just takes a little encouragement

Carmen Thomson
Carmen Thomson

Sometimes, it just takes a little encouragement.

In 1998, Carmen Thomson, a fresh fish and wildlife graduate, was working as Dr. Ed Peters’ laboratory assistant trying to decide whether to find seasonal employment to gain experience as a fisheries scientist or to attend graduate school. Peters encouraged her to apply to graduate school and research assistantships … at a time when not many women were doing it.

“His letter of recommendation helped me land my graduate assistantship at one of the top 10 schools in the Midwest for fisheries management,” she said. “I will forever be grateful for his support and encouragement to keep moving forward in the natural resources profession.”

Thomson pursued her master’s at South Dakota State University, where she earned a degree in Natural Resources Management, and through opportunities pursued during her graduate course work, eventually landed her current job as the National Park Service as the Midwest Region's Inventory and Monitoring Program Manager. She’s based out of the Greater Omaha Area.

“What's most enjoyable about my job is that I get to work with some extremely talented people that are just as passionate about science and resource conservation as I am,” Thomson said. “The people are what make this job fun and exciting. I also get to travel to some pretty amazing places, and see areas of national parks that the general public doesn't necessarily have access to. Being able to have the opportunity to protect and preserve these beautiful landscapes is truly an honor.”

She credits the School of Natural Resources’ academic program, including labs and communications courses, with helping prepare her for her career. She said the hands-on laboratories were exceptional and provided real-world situations for field work activities that carried over to her first job as Chief of Resource Management at Niobrara National Scenic River. In Peters’ Fisheries Science course, she learned how to use a secchi disk to measure water clarity, an indicator of water quality, and also how to electrofish. The communications courses helped her build the skills necessary to present her research results at profession and public meetings.

“Being able to translate highly technical scientific information into a format that the general public can understand and relate to is very important in this profession,” she said.

But her time working in Peters’ lab exposed her to a Platte River pallid sturgeon research project, which quickly piqued her interest in the field of threatened and endangered species management and habitat restoration. And that’s how she ended up making the Topeka shiners in eastern South Dakota, a fish that had recently been listed as federally endangered, the focus of her studies at SDSU.

“There wasn't much information about habitat preferences or population numbers,” Thomson said. “My project helped address those data gaps, and it also served as baseline information that was used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they designated critical habitat for the Topeka shiner in South Dakota.”

Several other graduate students in Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa were studying the Topeka shiners in their respective states at the same time, and the group of researchers would communicate regularly about what they were finding. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got wind of their collaborations, the organization invited them to serve on the federal Recovery Team for the Topeka shiner to share their results and to give recommendations on habitat preferences based on their field work.

It was at this time that she also heard about the Student Career Experience Program, a federal program that allowed students to apply to vacant federal positions with the goal of eventually filling those roles after completing 640 hours of work.

“At the end of the time, if the hiring agency was happy with my performance, I could be converted non-competitively to permanent status,” she said. “I applied for the Chief of Resource Management position at Niobrara National Scenic River a full semester before I was scheduled to graduate from SDSU.”
She got the job.

“I feel very fortunate to have landed that job, as SCEP appointments were very difficult to obtain at that time,” she said. “Again, Dr. Peters came through for me as a reference when I applied for the position so I'd like to think that he was still helping to shape my career long after I had graduated from UNL.”

For the past 11 years, Thomson has been in her current position as the Midwest Region’s Inventory and Monitoring Program Manager with the National Park Service, where she’s responsible for a 13-state area and 35 national park units. She supervises three satellite offices in Ashland, Wisconsin; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Republic, Missouri, which each employ staff responsible for developing long-term monitoring protocols and gathering data on key ecological resources identified by park staff as important or by park to conserve unimpaired.

Protocols range from vegetation, landbird and night skies monitoring in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska parks to water quality monitoring in large rivers and bio-contaminants monitoring in bald eagles in the Great Lakes area parks. The program is a large one that complements resource management activities already taking placing in parks.

“(Our monitoring program) helps fill research gaps that some parks may not be able to conduct on a daily basis,” Thomson said. “Data gathered from this program is used to help park staff make long-term management decisions for natural resource activities. … Being able to assist parks that have vastly different needs and management objectives is what makes this program and the information we provide even more critical.”

As much as she loves her current job, Thomson’s long-term goal is to become a permanent park superintendent after her children have graduated from high school (still a few years down the road, she says). Last summer, she served as acting park superintendent at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, and it was both a memorable and rewarding experience.

“Every day presented a new challenge,” she said. “I was responsible for not only a natural resources program, but all aspects of park management including visitor services, facilities, maintenance, interpretation and cultural resources management.”

Those goals are in keeping with her advice to those currently pursuing natural resources degrees.

“Don't be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone,” she said. “There are so many opportunities in the field of natural resource management. Follow all of your interests so that you have no regrets.”

Writer: Shawna Richter-Ryerson, Natural Resources