Deacon Spotlight: Ben Robb

Ben Robb (2015, BS in Biology)

Spatial Ecologist at U.S. Geological Survey in Fort Collins, COHead shot photo of Ben Robb outdoors with mountains behind him

Tell us about your current job role and employer. What are you currently working on?

I am a spatial ecologist working with the USGS in Fort Collins, Colorado. Our research focuses on the sagebrush ecosystem of western North America, the shrubland that lies between the mountain ranges in the west, and the wildlife found within the sagebrush ecosystem. This includes greater sage-grouse, mule deer, pronghorn, coyotes, golden eagles, and ferruginous hawks (among other critters).

I love this landscape, in part because I did my Master’s degree at University of Wyoming studying pronghorn migrations through the sagebrush ecosystem. My job right now involves data management, analysis, and organization for a larger team of ecologists. This can be anything from organizing datasets on roads in America, to processing satellite imagery. So really it’s a good deal of coding, statistics, and generating maps. I think what I do falls into the “applied ecology” camp, working with the USGS to contribute to conservation and wildlife management.

What key personal and/or career experiences led you to where you are today?

I hopped around a bit! The temporary/seasonal job circuit is very common in my field, which really helped shape to where I am today. In particular, I worked for a year as an intern at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, studying giant pandas and mule deer. That opportunity really laid the foundation for my interest in spatial ecology, GIS, remote sensing, and R. The professional network I built there (plus developing those skills) directly led to my graduate degree at Wyoming. Then that experience led to my current job in Colorado.

What was the most challenging aspect of your first “real world job” and what did you learn from it?

The 9–5 work schedule. Something kind of nice about college was that after class, you could tailor your schedule to what would work best for you. Work when most productive rather than when you’re required. It was an odd shift to a regular work schedule where I was given the timeframe to work, regardless of whether that timeframe worked best with my productivity. It’s really taught me a lot about paying attention to my energy levels — I always crash in the early afternoon — and scheduling the day around my energy levels. Doing that has helped me prepare for my productivity dips by having tasks I can do with little thought/energy, and save the energetic tasks for when I’m most awake.

What advice would you give to Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?

Every Monday morning, when friends at work ask what you did over the weekend, you should always have some adventure. I still struggle with work-life balance, but graduate school actually helped me appreciate that the two are not mutually exclusive. To be effective at work, you need to have a life. There are lots of ways to do this. But my favorite is every weekend, go on an adventure. Whatever that means to you.

How have you made personal and professional relationships in your city, company, or community?

At least in my experience, I don’t think I’ve had many professional relationships that didn’t also step into my personal life too. Example: I just emailed a friend from Wake for statistics help for a paper I’m working on. But what’s fun about this is it means staying in touch with friends counts as networking (at least in my book). So stay in touch, reach out, and respond when others contact you (I’m bad at that last one still…). Within the workplace, I like the rule that you should never eat at your desk. Join coworkers. Socialize. It’s a great way to build community in your workplace, plus it keeps your keyboard clean. Now building personal relationships, I just moved to a new town so I’m looking for advice! But I’ve heard great things about adult kickball leagues.

Have you been mentored by anyone at Wake Forest or in your professional life? If so, what impact has that relationship had on you?

I don’t know where I would be without the mentoring I received at Wake…but it wouldn’t be here. Particularly in the sciences, mentoring is crucial to your career. That’s the purpose of your advisor in grad school. We’ve all been shown the ropes by someone else. If you’re interested in the sciences then you need to get into a lab. Learn from that professor what good science means, then build your career from there. I’m thankful for the mentoring I received at Wake.

What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are about to start their first professional job?

I’m a fan of Edward Abbey’s line: “Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can.” I actually had a riot after I graduated Wake, I had time to pursue what I didn’t have time for in college. So take your first job seriously, do good work, but also allow yourself to have fun.

What’s next for your career? What future goals or plans are you pursuing?

I really enjoy research in ecology, then applying what I’ve learned to help management and conservation. It’s exciting, and rewarding when other people find value in my research. That’s a vague answer, cause long-term I’m still working a lot of this out. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years. But I know what I’d like to be doing. So I’m always trying to learn new skills, and trying to produce new research. Right now, I’m doing this by trying (trying!) to publish my research from my Master’s, and my ongoing research at the USGS.

Story published in November 2021. For current updates about Ben, visit his LinkedIn page.