Recipe for success? Take some strong family values, brotherly love, college funding challenges, career serendipity, a few mentors, and throw in some dedicated work and Dexter Strother will tell you his journey to the U.S. Forest Service is full of opportunities. Now an ecologist with the Center for Forest Disturbance Science in Athens, Georgia he is working on his doctorate in ecology at University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology. His passion, however, is black carbon, a byproduct of wildland fire, which could ultimately lead to lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere which could reduce global warming. His studies in forest, fire and soil ecologies may contribute to a more holistic approach to fire management and the effects of fire on forest landscapes.
After high school graduation, I planned to join my half-brother at Florida A&M University and play basketball, though I had received a basketball scholarship to St. Francis in Chicago. I attended Florida A&M until after Christmas break when funds ran low.
Fate led me to Ted Willis, the Forest Service liaison on campus, who explained that I could get a job fighting fires. That summer, I went to the Ocala Fire Management Office and met with Mike Dryden and John Ramsey, and began training to be a wildland fire technician.
How did your career with the Forest Service progress?
When I returned to school in the fall, Ted told me about the Multicultural Workforce Strategic Initiatives program with the Forest Service that would pay my tuition as long as I agreed to work one year for every year my tuition was paid. I spent the next two summers as a fire technician on the Tonto National Forest working and going to school.
From there, I spent the summer of 2010 on the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina. They had a slow fire season, so I started helping out with silviculture projects. I developed an interest in forestry and transferred to Alabama A&M University because Florida A&M did not have an accredited forestry program.
In December 2011, I was presented with an opportunity to speak at an upcoming meeting with the university’s Center of Excellence and the Southern Research Station. After the meeting, I met with Station representatives Rob Doudrick, Greg Ruark, and Gerry Jackson. They asked if I had ever thought about graduate school. I said no, and explained that I was under a Student Career Experience Program agreement (now called Pathways) and that was good enough for me. They told me about the benefits of working with the Station and the potential to move up in the organization. I immediately started studying for the Graduate Record Examination, took the exam, graduated from AAMU in May 2012, and started graduate school at the University of Georgia that fall.
What are your responsibilities as an ecologist?
My responsibilities include reading and writing to progress towards the completion of my degree, assisting my supervisor with his fire and other research needs for the Center For Forest Disturbance Science in Athens, publish papers, collaborate with other institutions and organizations to meet common goals, assist in fire operations on local forest districts when available, present at conferences, and disseminate information to the public in the best way I can.
What is your area of study?
My research focus is on forest ecology, fire ecology and soil ecology. Specifically I study black carbon, partially charred plant materials, which is a byproduct of wildland fire in frequently burned ecosystems of the southeastern U.S. Black carbon plays an important role in these ecosystems, because it takes fast cycling forms of carbon that would otherwise be lost quickly from the system, and transforms that carbon into a much slower cycling form that can be stored in the soil for centuries or millennia. Over the long-term this can substantially reduce the amount of CO2, an important greenhouse gas that is returned to the atmosphere through normal ecosystem processes, and this has implications for reducing global warming. The goal of the research is to provide a more holistic approach to fire and its overall effects on our forest landscapes.
Some forest types and grasslands wouldn’t exist without fire. The significance of my research will be that it hopefully will result in a better understanding of how frequent fires in the southeastern landscape interact with soils, vegetation and the overall ecosystem function of these forests. Answering questions about how fire influences the rate of black carbon production, and the ways in which this carbon is stored or is cycled in the ecosystem will give us a better understanding of how management practices feedback to much larger scale problems like greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, which affects the entire globe.
What challenges does your work entail?
One of the biggest challenges is time management. I am constantly struggling with how much time I should spend writing, versus presenting or should I be in the field or the lab. There are also other operational challenges such as when I am on a wildland fire, juggling safety, unpredictability of the fire and weather, as well as wanting to get the job done.
What guides your involvement in helping the Forest Service legacy of caring for the land and serving the people?
When I was growing up, I can always remember how helpful my mom was, most of time even when she didn’t have much herself. My values in a lot of ways are a reflection of hers. I feel that the Forest Service stewardship of public lands allows large public places tobe enjoyed by everyone. I am honored to be a part of preserving and maintaining some of these lands for the current public and the people of the future. I understand that the Forest Service allows a lot of activities, some free and others at low cost, that people such as myself who grew up in the city might not have gotten otherwise.
The belief that I actually make a difference at work. I feel that I am either educating someone or helping preserve the legacy that some people wouldn’t have seen or know about if no one was willing to do this type of work.
Do you have an unusual or inspirational moment in your career?
My proudest moment is when I received a Certificate of Merit from the Forest Service and a Life Saving Certificate from Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona. I was in my third year with the Forest Service and headed to the office to fill out some paper work when the lead firefighter and I noticed smoke coming from the back of a recreational vehicle traveling next to us. We got the attention of the man and woman inside and they pulled over, unaware their RV was on fire. The driver informed us that his wife was with him and that she was paralyzed from the neck down. The fire lead called 911 and rookie firefighter Adam Rausch and I got the woman out of the RV. As we were wheeling her away from the RV, the propane tank exploded. The explosion sent the windshield flying, narrowly missing us. That was the most intense and memorable moment of my career.
Do you have a favorite movie?
My favorite movie is “Ali,” starring Will Smith who plays Mohammad Ali. I like his determination and ability to fight for what he believed in; every time he got knocked down he always got back up.
Who has had the greatest influence on your life and why?
My mom has without a doubt influenced my life the most. Growing up I was a “mama’s boy.” I did almost anything I could to impress her. She was always telling me and showing me how a man should act and behave. She has the biggest heart of anyone I have ever seen and constantly instilled in me to care for others first.
How are you involved in helping the next generation and grooming them as far as professional development?
Though I still have mentors, I am starting to look at myself as a mentor. A lot of students ask me how I got to where I am today. Some students and young professionals call me with difficulties they are having in their careers or for advice. I was always asked in undergraduate school to help students study because they say I explain things in a different way than the teacher, and it starts to sink in for them. Just last weekend I was in Osceola, Florida with a rookie fire fighter and we were prepping red-cockaded woodpecker trees and he said ‘you are a great teacher. I will not forget the things you told me.’