FCFC Students Win “Best of” Awards at UM GradCon

Franke College of Forestry and Conservation students made a strong showing at this year’s University of Montana GradCon – UM’s interdisciplinary graduate student research conference. This year’s event was held virtually and featured presentations from students across campus. Two FCFC graduate students took home “Best of” awards in their respective fields.

Rebekah Brassfield won Best of GradCon in Oral Presentations – STEM for her project “Using classification trees to identify bumble bees.”

Rebekah is a master’s student in the Systems Ecology program studying with Diana Six. Her GradCon project used machine learning programs to train a computer to identify bumble bee species from photos.Rebekah Brassfield

“It works in almost the same way a human identifying these bees would behave, looking at key features for each bee to determine what species it is,” Rebekah said. “There are 24 species of bees in Montana, and the characteristics are so microscopic that identifying them is tricky and time consuming. My graduate research involves capturing bees and taking pictures to use in identification later, but with this program, I can put those characteristics into the computer and have it determine what species it is with about 93% accuracy.”

While the program still needs to be perfected, Rebekah said Grad Con was a great chance to teach other people a little bit about machine learning and pollinators.

As an undergraduate student in Nebraska, Rebekah began as a pre-med major, but she enjoyed her ecology class so much she switched her major. After graduating in 2017, she worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho on sage grouse habitat and then moved to Missoula. She took a job at Salish Kootenai College as a research assistant and field technician working on a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program and on other projects related to huckleberries.

“I got the chance to mentor undergrad students, and that's where I really leaned into my passion for teaching,” Rebekah said. “I'm especially interested in plants. My background at the Forest Service and other jobs was more botany than wildlife. When SKC included bees, it was a natural extension of my passion for plants to include pollinators. I fell in love with the bees and decided to make it my master's project.”

While non-native honeybees get a lot of love in U.S., Rebekah said native pollinators, like bumble bees, are critically important.

“Honeybees are non-native species, and their proliferation has major impacts on the native bees in the U.S.,” she said. “Really bumble bees and other native bees are where it's at. Keep an eye out for the big furry ladies flying around. They provide a lot of unseen value to the ecosystem, and they deserve all the attention.”

Lindsey Ellett won Best of GradCon in Oral Presentations - Humanities and Social Sciences for her project Coordination of Transboundary Marine Protected Areas in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape.

Lindsey is a master’s student in the Resource Conservation – International Conservation and Development program studying with Jennifer Thomsen. She is also a UM Food-Energy-Water Nexus BRIDGES trainee.

Lindsey EllettFor GradCon, Lindsey summarized her current master’s research on transboundary marine conservation coordination within the Sulu-Sulawesi seascape, a biodiversity hotspot located between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Transboundary protected areas are clearly defined protected areas connected across international boundaries and involve cooperation between multiple countries. Transboundary conservation approaches are integral to managing marine areas because environmental concerns aren't bound by borders. For example, migratory species might travel between countries, and marine pollution can cross political boundaries. But because only a few transboundary marine protected areas exist, there’s limited research about how these protected areas can be effectively coordinated and managed. That’s where Lindsey’s project comes in.

“My research project aims to contribute to these gaps in knowledge by exploring perceptions of how marine protected area management is coordinated in the Sulu-Sulawesi seascape,” Lindsey said. “My thesis involves both a policy analysis of national-level marine and conservation policies related to the Sulu-Sulawesi region and semi-structured interviews with stakeholders from the three countries. By researching the coordination of transboundary marine protected area and marine management in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape, I hope to help better inform management in the region, as well as build my own skills in policy analysis and cross-cultural collaboration.”

Lindsey holds a B.S. in biology from Oregon State University, where her undergraduate thesis work and internships focused on whale and dolphin research and conservation. She worked as a field research assistant in the waters off of Massachusetts, Hawaii and Australia where she became interested in protected area management, endangered species conservation and cross-cultural stakeholder collaboration. She was drawn to UM’s resource conservation program because of its interdisciplinary nature and opportunities for collaboration.

“It is an honor to be recognized for my work so far and motivating to know that others found my presentation engaging and my research valuable,” Lindsey said about her GradCon experience. “I appreciate the support from my peers and am happy to have been able to share and gain interest in my work while it is still ongoing.”

Congratulations, Lindsey and Rebekah!