By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
|Alix Pfennigwerth maps and surveys wetlands and collects data from forest monitoring plots as a biological science technician with the Inventory and Monitoring program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of Matt Jernigan.|
Alix Pfennigwerth works as a biological science technician with the Inventory and Monitoring program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She has always loved being in the outdoors and exploring the natural world, and both her parents encouraged her interest in science.
Reflecting on her career choices in honor of February 11, the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Pfennigwerth traces the gateway to her current career back to one particular high school ecology class.
“Other kids took the class because they’d heard it was an ‘easy’ alternative to chemistry or physics, but I was fascinated by it all and craved that knowledge,” she said. “My teacher, Mrs. Horton, noticed I had a genuine interest in the topic and gave me a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It really opened my eyes to the broader world of ecology and the environment.”
Pfennigwerth brought her interest in ecology and the environment with her to college at the University of Tennessee but wasn’t exactly sure how to translate that into a career. After exploring her options as an environmental studies major, some of her ecology professors encouraged her to focus more on the biology side of things, so she switched to a biology/ecology major.
“One of my first jobs out of college was managing invasive plants and forest pests at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area managed by the National Park Service,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was working with people who’d made a career out of studying and conserving national parks. I realized that summer that this was what I wanted to do.”
Pfennigwerth soon recognized that her strengths lay in understanding, conducting, and communicating science, and that those were all extremely important skillsets that could help solve our world’s environmental issues. Today, her core responsibilities at work include managing the park’s wetland inventory program; a photography project documenting post-wildfire forest recovery; and a study of how the park’s elk reintroduction affects forest communities. She also supports long-term forest monitoring and rare plant monitoring programs.
During the warmer months, Pfennigwerth spends most of her time outside mapping and surveying wetlands and collecting data from long-term forest monitoring plots. “It’s muddy, sweaty, exhausting work, and certainly not always glamorous, but I love it,” she said.
In winter, she organizes and analyzes the data she collects and communicates that data through reports, scientific papers, resource briefs, webpages, and presentations. This helps park management make science-driven decisions and assists interpretation staff in educating park visitors.
“I’ve had several female mentors over the years,” she said, “who have shown me firsthand how women can be successful and lead in our field. Because of their mentorship, it always felt natural to me to pursue a career in science.”
Since graduate school, in various positions, Pfennigwerth has in turn been in charge of mentoring dozens of interns, technicians, and students. “I love helping young scientists (of any gender) figure out exactly what they’re interested in, build confidence in their strengths and abilities, and gain the skills and experiences that will help them advance in their career.”
Diversity is important in science as in every other field, Pfennigwerth said. “It’s a powerful experience to see someone that looks, sounds, and behaves like you, doing the job you’re interested in, and doing it well. It’s inspiring, comforting, and motivating.”