John Rothlisberger, Biology Ph.D. Candidate, Works to Implement the $475-million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Author: Mary Hendriksen

John Rothlisberger on the campus of the University of Notre Dame

John Rothlisberger, Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate in biology, was selected for the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship at a most propitious time. In August 2009, in addition to successfully defending his dissertation, Rothlisberger began a two-year position as a fellow with the United States Forest Service; then, in late October, Congress authorized $475 million for one of President Obama’s top legislative priorities: the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That legislation, which counts the Forest Service as one of its key implementers, aims to protect and restore the natural ecosystems of the Great Lakes and their watersheds. One of the initiative’s targets is the critical problem of aquatic invasive species, which Rothlisberger studied at Notre Dame under the direction of Professor David Lodge.

Rothlisberger says: “The Great Lakes are an unparalleled natural resource, containing twenty percent of the world’s freshwater and supporting incredibly valuable sport and commercial fisheries. The environmental quality of the lakes, however, has been degraded by multiple environmental stressors. Aquatic invasive species have been among the most important of these stressors.” [The potential for more biological invasions continues to loom large. For more on the current crisis in the Great Lakes, see, for example, the recent article on NSF Discoveries, Estimating the True Costs of Invasive Species in the Great Lakes, and the New York Times article, Be Careful What You Fish For.]

“As a region and as a nation, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to protect and restore the Great Lakes. Many organizations and agencies, including the Forest Service, are optimistic that Congress will continue to fund this initiative for at least the next five years. That will give us time to make a real difference in the region’s environmental quality.”

As a fellow, Rothlisberger has an ambitious agenda, with assignments that include developing a regional aquatic conservation strategy for the 20-state Eastern Region of the U.S. Forest Service; coordinating aquatic invasive species education and outreach efforts for the national forests in the region, including a mass media campaign funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; and implementing recreational boat inspection and a cleaning demonstration project in the Ottawa National Forest (located within the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan) to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species. In conjunction with his fellowship, he will also participate in a variety of leadership and training workshops to prepare for future opportunities in natural resource research and management.

A native of Baltimore, Rothlisberger came to Notre Dame after receiving an undergraduate degree in conservation biology from Brigham Young University and a master’s in stream ecology from Utah State University. He reports having a strong interest in nature for as long as he can remember. Some of his earliest and most vivid childhood memories include scenes of chasing lizards in Arizona and of finding salamanders in the bank of a Maryland stream. “It was during my participation as a middle school student in a summer science camp at the National Aquarium in Baltimore that studied the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay that I realized that a person could make a career of studying and conserving nature,” John recalls. “That sounded great to me, and I feel very fortunate to now be embarking on just such a career.”

Rothlisberger explains that he chose Notre Dame for his doctoral work because, “I never wanted a career in esoteric research. Always, I wanted to pursue highly relevant research that addresses pressing ecological problems—something that Notre Dame does so well.”

Rothlisberger continues that focus on practical application as a Presidential Management Fellow—and he is in very select company. Over 4,200 graduating advanced students from a wide variety of fields—including science, public administration, and law—were nominated by their academic institutions to compete for the 2009 fellowships. That number was winnowed to 786 finalists by a four-hour examination that assessed finalists’ life experiences, writing skills, and critical thinking skills. The finalists then applied to federal agencies, who interviewed them, matched skills to open positions, and made offers, with about one half of finalists ultimately receiving a fellowship. Rothlisberger was selected by his first choice: the U.S. Forest Service.

It should prove to be a good match. “My academic training in Dr. David Lodge’s lab at Notre Dame, including my affiliation with the Center for Aquatic Conservation, has given me a solid foundation to make the most of the chance to work to conserve and protect the valuable aquatic resources in this region. Dr. Lodge’s support of my desire to undertake research projects that have important implications for natural resource policy and management, as well as his guidance in working with a wide range of research and management partners, was instrumental in my ability to obtain a Presidential Management Fellowship and to secure my position with the U.S. Forest Service. Likewise, I am certain that my experiences at Notre Dame will serve me well as I deal with the many critical and complex environmental issues facing the Great Lakes region.”