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A man with a beard in the forest.

Graduate student takes wildlife research to the next level with Data Analytics program

By Grace Peterman
Data analytics empowers Brent Wolf to make a difference with wildlife. 

A wildlife research biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Brent Wolf couldn't be happier with the career path he's found. “Coming to Oregon was a great choice, I love living out here” he said. Wolf is also a graduate student in the College of Science’s two-year online Graduate Program in Data Analytics, a flexible program that allows him to continue working the job he loves while getting his degree. He was drawn to the program as a way to get a leg up in his current role, and so far it has paid off. “Going for the M.S. in data analytics has opened some doors for me that were previously closed,” he said.

Finding fulfillment with wildlife research

Wolf mapped out his career path early. “I grew up watching Steve Irwin and BBC nature shows, plus I enjoy being able to be outside and solve problems. Wildlife is just a good fit for all of that,” Wolf said. As a research biologist, he collects and analyzes data on a variety of Oregon species, including black-tailed deer, Columbian white-tailed deer and the American marten.

After graduating from the Florida Institute of Technology with a B.S. in ecology and marine biology, Wolf encountered some of the drawbacks of working with wildlife: low pay and frequent moves between seasonal jobs. “ODFW is the first spot where I actually have a permanent job with upward mobility,” he said.

To make a bigger impact at ODFW, Wolf decided to go back to school for data analytics. Oregon State’s award-winning Ecampus program “jumped out because it was an M.S. and offered some courses that I really wanted to take,” he said. Unlike most online learning opportunities, Ecampus courses are taught by the same faculty who teach in-person, giving students access to experienced, committed professionals in every field.

“I really enjoyed [Professor of Statistics] Lan Xue, especially her survival statistics course,” said Wolf. “It’s really hard to get good at something like that without some instruction.”

A man kneeling in the forest, holding a fawn or baby deer.
Wolf studies survival of black-tailed and Columbian white-tailed fawns in Douglas county.

Distilling data for strong decision-making

As our ability to collect information explodes, having people who know how to process and interpret data is more important than ever. From environmental solutions and healthcare to engineering and product development, being able to collect and translate data pays off across the board.

Research biologists like Wolf work both in the field and at computers, reviewing existing studies on the species and deciding what model will allow them to best address and communicate what they need to know next.

“I really like being able to provide wildlife managers with study results that can help them make the best decisions possible,” said Wolf of his work at ODFW. “Making sure that the science input that they get is well-done and answers the questions they need is pretty important and satisfying.”

Centrally located in Roseburg, OR, Wolf works on a wide array of studies. One project is focused on deer fawn survival, looking at the first six months of life when fawns are most vulnerable to predators. He also works in the Archie Creek fire area in southwest Oregon, monitoring what species are still in the burned area, what comes back, and how long it takes for them to come back. Finally, a camera study just north of Crater Lake monitors occupancy of martens and other mid-sized carnivores.

Translating data into action

Managing wildlife involves balancing the needs of many different stakeholders. All species are affected to some degree by human activity, natural disasters and climate change, and data analytics is crucial to understanding those effects and how to mitigate them. Oregon State’s Ecampus program trains students to translate data into terms the public can understand.

“We need to be able to effectively communicate what we are finding, why it is important, and why people should care,” Wolf said.

A love for animals and the scientific process motivates Wolf to work towards a better world. “I think that we should always be pushing forward with new studies to answer new questions,” he said.