Lootens-White, an information technology specialist, has a keen interest in interpreting scientific data and helping Northern Research Station scientists by developing web projects to highlight their compelling research. An early morning period of reflection or a jog along Chicago’s lakefront often provides the inspiration. Self-described as a bit of an introvert he also enjoys the team effort involved in his work. The Forest Service mission of caring for the land and serving people continues to resonate deeply for him. It’s a way of giving back.
How long have you worked for the Forest Service?
After graduating from college in 1996, I worked in Forest Service-funded position as a research associate at the University of Missouri in field tech activities such as tree-measurement studies, grouse counts and bird nest searching. One of my advisors and professors was a Forest Service scientist who encouraged me to apply for graduate school in forestry in 1997, which the agency funded. After finishing my coursework in 1999, I joined the Forest Service as a co-operative education student and computer specialist and then continued on with other jobs in information technology.
Has it been a great career choice?
I enjoy the challenge of taking dry scientific information such as a journal article or a big stack of data or graphs and, with my educational background in forestry and wildlife biology, boiling down complex concepts and transforming the information into interesting stories for our readers.
One of my favorite things is to tell stories especially based on data that describes an ecological phenomenon or a model that our scientists are creating and pull an interesting story out of it. I developed the data dashboard for the Northern Forest Futures Project, which allows viewers to compare various metrics and facts for forest resources in the 20 northeastern states.
I’ve also always enjoyed the outdoors and felt in awe of nature. All my Forest Service jobs have allowed me to get outside when it’s nice and be inside at a desk when the weather’s not so cooperative. With my interest and background in technology and developing web applications, the Forest Service research field has given me great opportunities to bring those two aspects together. The people I work with are great. I enjoy my work and have always felt challenged as well as appreciated and I feel I’ve made a difference.
What's the saying? "If you love your job, you'll never have to work a day in your life." That's what keeps me coming back.
What’s a work week like for you?
Lots of conference calls and video teleconferences. I’ve been a virtual employee for about 10 years. I’m located in Chicago, my boss is in St. Paul, Minn., and I work with people located across the country. I use all the technology tools available today including email, instant messenger, webinars and phone calls. I spend a lot of time working collaboratively on projects, coming up with concepts, agreeing on plans, and other times working solo to complete assignments. I tend to be an introvert, so I need that recharge time. The mix of all these activities strikes the right balance.
Do you have an example of a successful project that has garnered public popularity?
We have an online system called Treesearch, which offers the public a great opportunity to find a treasure trove of Forest Service research publications. We include research monographs, professional papers published in many of the world’s prestigious professional scientific journals, conference proceedings or even books. And all are peer reviewed.
Before this site existed, there was no way to search the agency’s website to find all agency research publications. I worked with a fantastic group of people who came together in a grassroots effort to find a way to create the system. My role involved programming and developing the site but there were many employees who put a lot of time and energy into creating it using very limited resources.
I currently manage the site and see all the questions and compliments we get from the public. Getting that kind of feedback and praise from outside the organization is probably one of the best things to experience and to know we’re serving the taxpayers well. We’re constantly improving it, but their feedback tells us how happy they are.
What are you currently working on?
We’re working with Cornell University on improving our Climate Change Tree Atlas. Using global circulation models that measure how much carbon dioxide is in the air and our scientists’ research, the atlas focuses on how climate change may potentially influence tree species in the eastern United States. We have lots of maps and statistics on different climate change scenarios to forecast the impact of large or small temperature increases on tree species and where they may or may not grow as a result. I’m developing the web applications so we can best communicate the information.
Who do you feel has had the most influence on your life?
I’d have to say my father, who I’ve always looked up to. He died when I was 20 years old. He was a high school teacher and football coach who believed in helping people. I think the drive and passion he had in his life is what inspired me to work in public service.
Are there any particular national forests you enjoy visiting?
My husband and I go out west to Wyoming or Colorado for a week each summer. One year, we spent two nights in a Forest Service lookout tower on the Medicine Bow National Forest, my favorite national forest. At 10 thousand feet plus another 65 feet up in the tower, it was an incredible experience. A thunderstorm rolled through at one point which was a bit scary, but we had great views of the stars and the landscape. Since it was early in the season, there was a heavy snow. It was very impressive.
Other favorites include the Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin for camping outside and hearing the sounds at night and the Ottawa National Forest in northern Michigan to explore the woods and nearby Lake Superior.
June is Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Month. As a gay man, how important is it to have a special recognition month?
From an overview perspective, I think we have to recognize that there are passionate viewpoints on this topic. I serve as the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Special Emphasis Program manager for two Forest Service research units in the northeast – the Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory -- as well as the Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry. In that role, I’ve seen how important workplace education is and how having an open dialogue on the topic helps the Forest Service become an even better workplace for all.
I’m a resource for Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Forest Service employees to let them know what rights, benefits and protections they have as a USDA employee. I work with other employees and supervisors to help them understand the laws and regulations related to LGBT employees and any changes in these areas. I also serve as a general resource to provide training, outreach and visibility to employees as an organizational representative for anyone who has questions or feels uncomfortable about LGBT topics in the workplace.
Each year, there is a USDA Pride event hosted in Washington D.C. and frequently the USDA Secretary will participate in a live broadcast to all USDA employees across the nation. It’s important for all employees to see that the Secretary takes an interest in addressing this topic. Whether it’s Pride Month in June or one of the other special observances, we need certain times to be able to step back and talk about what’s important to these communities.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.