Meet Christina Liang

Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Christina Liang

U.S. Forest Service
June 29th, 2015 at 6:45PM

A photo of Christina Liang As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

I really didn’t know! When I was a child, my parents owned a Chinese restaurant in San Diego. My mom tells a story about me: when I was really little, I said that I wanted to be a restaurant operator like my mom. When I grew up and saw how much work that would entail, I quickly realized that was not the path I wanted to take.

When did you become interested in science?

I was always interested in biology and the sciences, but it wasn’t until I got to college at the University of California, Berkeley that I was introduced more to natural resources sciences and ecology. And it wasn’t until I spent my junior year abroad in Australia where I really fell in love with the outdoors and became interested in wildlife ecology and environmental sciences. I’ve always loved travel, and that was just an amazing opportunity to live and study in a foreign country. I highly recommend travel abroad programs for students if they can manage it--for the educational experience and, of course, for the life experience.

What happened after college?

Right after college, I did a Student Conservation Association (SCA) internship for three months with the then National Biological Service, which is now part of the U.S. Geological Survey. I tracked desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert. Looking back, I can say that it was kind of a transformative experience. It was the spring right after a wet El Niño year so plants were blooming that hadn’t bloomed in years, and the desert was amazingly beautiful with so much vegetation and wildlife. The Mojave Desert is a really great spot for reptiles and has many lizard and snake species. That experience led me into herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles), and I decided that was the field I wanted to focus on when I applied to graduate school. The SCA experience was very meaningful to me.

Why did you choose a career with the Forest Service?A photo of Christina Liang

Years later, when I was a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, I happened to meet the liaison for the Forest Service Asian Pacific American recruitment initiative on campus. He told me about the Basu scholarship, which provided an opportunity for Asian Pacific American graduate students to enter into trainee positions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture while in school and then move into permanent positions after graduation. I applied for the scholarship.

Separately from applying for the scholarship, I was looking for a project for my dissertation and was interested in the effects of land management on amphibian species. This led me to Amy Lind who was an ecologist with the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW) leading a Yosemite toad project in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. I began working with her as a volunteer to get experience and to develop my own project with the Yosemite toad, which is a threatened species. About six months after I applied, I was selected to receive the Basu scholarship and began working officially with PSW while I was a graduate student. It felt like the stars had aligned for me!

What brought you to Hawaii, and how has being here changed your work?

After I received my PhD, I was very fortunate to be offered a full-time research ecologist position with PSW in Hilo.  I was very excited and interested in the opportunity, of course, but I had never been to Hawaii before I moved here. It did take a period of time to figure out what I should do here, but the people here are all fantastic and very welcoming, very warm.

There are no native amphibians in Hawaii. The coquí frog, which is probably the most prominent amphibian here--because it’s so loud!—is a non-native species. In California, I was working with a native, threatened amphibian species and thinking about my work from a conservation viewpoint, such as the best way to gain information about the species to help conserve or preserve or manage it for perpetuity. In Hawaii, where there are so many invasive species, it’s kind of the flipside. How do we manage the non-native species in order to minimize its potential negative impacts on the ecosystem?

That new way of thinking led me to a collaborative project looking at the impacts of non-native predator species on pollination and native plant reproduction in Hawaii. For another collaborative project, I am investigating the landscape genomics of koa, which is an endemic tree in Hawaii. I always thought that genomics is a really interesting field, and being able to use genomics as a tool to answer interesting questions pertaining to adaptation and for management is of great value. These topics are different from what I studied in California and during my dissertation, but in Hawaii I’ve had the opportunities to go in some new and unexpected directions. It has been really exciting to grow and pursue interesting projects within the Forest Service mission.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the opportunity to investigate important research questions and to contribute information that helps manage and sustain the forest ecosystem and native species. It’s a continual learning process for me.

What’s your advice for young people or someone trying to decide on a career path?

Explore. Ask questions. Get the experience. Go out and volunteer or find an internship and try it out. You might discover that it’s something that you love to do and you continue to pursue it. You might also find out that you really don’t like it. I think it’s really important for everyone to be self-aware and to figure out their likes and dislikes, and also their own strengths and weaknesses.

If you could’ve chosen another career, what would that be?

I like music, dance—the arts. I’ve never seriously studied them, but I’m very drawn to them. If I had to go back and do it all again, maybe I’d pursue that training. I took piano lessons when I was young, and I’m currently taking lessons with the violin. It’s just something that’s fun for me to do.

Who has been your greatest influence?

My sister, who is four years older. We’re very close and, as younger sisters do, I always looked up to her for advice—to see what she did and kind of followed along with it. Besides my parents, she’s known me the longest and has always been a constant in my life.

What does your heritage mean to you?

When I was growing up, I didn’t necessarily think about my heritage. It was just part of me. As I grow older and I look back and reflect upon it more, I can identify the traditions and customs more readily as part of a larger heritage.

My mom is originally from Taiwan and immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. My dad is originally from Guangdong, China. His family moved to Taiwan when he was young, but he then immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s when he was an adult. I went to Taiwan with my mom once when I was a baby and then a second time when I was 7 years old. Last fall, my mom and I went back to Taiwan to tour the island and we also went to China to visit the town where her grandfather came from. That entire trip was really meaningful to me and very special. Taiwan is an amazing place not only because it has incredible scenery and geology and is really diverse biologically, but it also has a rich cultural element which I connected to. So I got to be a tourist and see some amazing sites, but we also went to some of the places where my family has roots. I was able to meet some of my cousins there. I saw the old house where my father’s family lived when they first moved to Taiwan. It also was really interesting to see connections both within and beyond our family, and to recognize why people sometimes interact the way that they do—where those connections come from. It was very fascinating and illuminating for me. And the food was fantastic, too!