Doctoral student evaluating long-term sustainability in fisheries using quantitative stock assessment models
Fisheries and Wildlife Ph.D. student Emily Liljestrand combines a passion for mathematics and computer modeling with a love for marine biology to evaluate long-term sustainability in fisheries.
Working with Dr. James Bence at the MSU Quantitative Fisheries Center, Emily Liljestrand studies fisheries stock assessment and population dynamics models and applies that knowledge to evaluate how management strategies may be influencing long-term sustainability in fisheries.
Liljestrand is a Ph.D. student in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (EEB) Program. She earned a master’s degree in fisheries sciences from the University of Maryland and three bachelor’s degrees from Rice University in biochemistry and cell biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and Asian studies. Liljestrand is one of the 2022 CANR Alumni Association Scholarship recipients.
“I’ve always loved marine biology and ocean science. But it wasn’t until after I’d already finished my undergraduate degree that I realized I could combine this with another passion — mathematics and computer modeling,” Liljestrand said. “I loved the idea that complex natural resource problems, like estimating the number of fish in a given region, could be reduced to relatively simple mathematical equations that explain everything going on ‘under the surface.’ Once we understand these underlying dynamics, we can make informative management metrics that let us sustainably use natural resources for the benefit of humans and the environment alike.”
“Michigan State has one of the best Fisheries and Wildlife programs in the United States. I sought it out specifically because I wanted to work with my current mentor, Jim Bence. Dr. Bence has decades of experience improving on quantitative stock assessment models, and since I want to do the same, I wanted to learn from the best,” she said. “There’s exciting work to be done in looking at how we can add spatial and temporal complexity to these models, and I want to be the one to do it!”
Liljestrand is active in the department’s graduate student organization. She also enjoys volunteering her time as an instructor during the Girls Math and Science Day and Girls STEM Day at MSU where she strives to get kids “hooked” on fisheries science. She developed the Fish in a Box activity as an innovative and engaging way to teach youth how to estimate population size using the mark and recapture technique. She is a role model and aspires to cultivate the next generation of natural resource scientists.
In the immediate future, she would like to obtain a post-doctoral fellowship position to continue her work in statistical stock assessment models. Her long-term goal is to earn an academic or government position where she can apply novel techniques to better assess our natural resources.
The Department of Fisheries and Wildlife’s graduate program is a national leader in the training of fishery and wildlife professionals. Graduate student research projects encompass diverse areas of limnology, fisheries and wildlife, including human dimensions aspects. These projects take advantage of modern computing facilities, a world-class library, university research stations, and the tremendous natural resources of Michigan.
The Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (EEB) Program is a research and training hub for those seeking to understand and predict life in a changing world. EEB members come from 12 departments in five colleges, uniting multiple disciplines. The program aims to support innovative research and mentor the next generation of life scientists while building networks and enriching collaborations.
Name: Emily Liljestrand
Hometown: Austin, TX
Degree working on (master’s degree, Ph.D. and any sub-programs): Fisheries and Willdlife, Ph.D., with a specialization in ecology, evolutionary biology and behavior.
Expected graduation date: May 2023
Research focus: Fisheries Science, focus on stock assessment
What inspired your interest in your advanced degree area?
I’ve always loved marine biology and ocean science. But it wasn’t until after I’d already finished my undergraduate degree that I realized I could combine this with another passion — mathematics and computer modeling. I loved the idea that complex natural resource problems, like estimating the number of fish in a given region, could be reduced to relatively simple mathematical equations that explain everything going on “under the surface.” Once we understand these underlying dynamics, we can make informative management metrics that let us sustainably use natural resources for the benefit of humans and the environment alike. This area of science finally had a name for me “fisheries and wildlife” and I realized that if I wanted to know more about this awesome field of study and how to build the computer models that generate these management metrics, I’d need to pursue an advanced degree.
Why did you choose to study at MSU?
Michigan State has one of the best Fisheries and Wildlife programs in the United States. I sought it out specifically because I wanted to work with my current mentor, Jim Bence. Dr. Bence has decades of experience improving on quantitative stock assessment models, and since I want to do the same, I wanted to learn from the best. On top of that though, when I got to tour the lab and the university before committing to the program, I could tell this would be a welcoming and supportive environment and I’d be able to do my best work in such a place.
What has been one of your best experiences within graduate school so far?
My research program has afforded me several opportunities to meet with fellow scientists and stakeholders, traveling within Michigan, the U.S., and even abroad. One of the best experiences was traveling to Reno, Nevada, for the National American Fisheries Society Meeting in 2019. That year the conference was combined with The Wildlife Society, so basically, the whole MSU Fisheries and Wildlife department was in attendance! I got to see my colleagues share their work, meet new potential collaborators, and learn about research similar to mine that is being conducted all over the world
What do you want others to know about this program?
I would want others to know how collaborative and supportive the program is. Within our department (Fisheries and Wildlife), there is so much inter-lab collaboration because there is such a diversity of research specialties that can synchronize very well together — quantitative skills, fish identification and broad to narrow scopes. But even outside of the department there is so much crossover, educational support and essential resources. I’ve attended workshops on field safety from students in the Forestry department which taught me how to hitch a trailer or identify dangerous snakes. I’ve also sat in on dinners hosted by the CANR department that celebrate diversity and unique stories from natural resource professionals. It’s a shame I don’t have enough time in my schedule to attend all the activities that have been made available to me/us to bolster us professionally and personally.
What are some of the best things about being an MSU student?
Maybe I already alluded to it in the previous responses, but the best thing about being an MSU student is the community. We have access to student centers, both general and graduate level, clubs, recreational gyms and so much more. I’ve participated in several student groups on campus designed to bring together students from across departments and colleges. I’d particularly like to highlight our graduate student organization (GSO) in the Fisheries and Wildlife department. I’ve had the honor of working within this group to put on student symposia, host a weekly seminar that brings in speakers from across the country, and even produce a yearly magazine highlighting student experiences and research. I’ve learned just as much through participation with the GSO — about cooperation, collaboration, and organization — than I have with my coursework and research. I couldn’t have succeeded the way I have without my fellow graduate students beside me.
Any thoughts or advice for current or new students?
Don’t try and rush through the program too fast. There’s certainly value in keeping your eye on the prize — that final degree — but don’t let that get in the way of traveling, presenting work and exploring coursework that isn’t exactly in your field. Or just having a movie night or outing with your cohort of incoming students. You might find that these sorts of non-research activities can add a lot to your general education, as well as keeping you sane and healthy for the duration of your degree program.
What are your future plans?
In the immediate future, I’ve applied to a few post-doctoral fellowship positions that would allow me to continue my work in statistical stock assessment models. In the long term, I hope to earn an academic or government position that would allow me to apply novel techniques to better assess our natural resources. There’s exciting work to be done in looking at how we can add spatial and temporal complexity to these models, and I want to be the one to do it!