Turn of Fate Leads Graduate Student to Plum Creek Fellowship

Eryn Schneider doesn’t seem like someone to leave her life to fate. She measures trees to the centimeter and meticulously weighs snow. She can tell you the precise radius of a tree crown. Just a few years ago, she thought she was going to medical school. But a chance encounter disrupted her careful plans and led her to the University of Montana.

As an undergraduate at College of St. Catherine in Minnesota, Schneider was on the pre-med track. Her biology minor required an ecology course, and her roommate’s grandfather suggested she look into summer courses at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. She took a class exploring a wetland fen.

“I returned for my last year of undergrad, started filling out medical school applications and realized I wasn’t sure if that was really what I wanted anymore,” Schneider says. “I took a year off, took my GRE and decided that whichever test I did better on — MCAT or GRE — is where I would go, careerwise.”

She did well on both tests, but her GRE scores convinced her to search for graduate programs in ecology. She enrolled in a master’s program at Northern Arizona University, where she studied tree spatial patterning — the relationship of trees to ecosystem factors — under noted ecology professor Wallace Covington. This focus eventually led her to Montana.

While finishing her graduate studies at NAU, she discovered UM’s Plum Creek Fellowship, which supports Ph.D. students in the College of Forestry and Conservation. The Plum Creek Timber Company funded the fellowship in 1994. The company also sponsors the Plum Creek Distinguished Lecture Series.

As Schneider considered UM, she began talking with Andrew Larson, an assistant professor of forest ecology at UM. In their second phone conversation she realized he was “the” Larson—author of the landmark paper on spatial patterning that was a foundation of her master’s thesis. Larson would be overseeing her work at UM, and she was sold.

Eryn collecting data at Lubrecht Forest.As a Ph.D. candidate at UM, Schneider is able to work directly with Larson on a project investigating the impact of forest spatial patterning on water availability. She’s researching the connection between how long snow persists on the forest floor and future water for trees.

“Eryn’s research is important because most forests in the American West are water limited,” Larson says. “The trees could do more photosynthesis — pull more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into plant biomass — if only they had more water.”

Schneider is clear that without the Plum Creek Fellowship, she wouldn’t be at UM. “This fellowship is what allows me to work on my dissertation,” she says. “Many graduate students work on existing projects because their advisors already have funding, but I am able to design and work on my own project.”

She is also grateful to focus solely on natural resource research without worrying about second jobs or grant applications.

“I can pursue my passion and hopefully make a difference in what we know about natural resources and how we manage them,” says Schneider.

Schneider sees a strong connection between her initial plan to attend medical school and a future teaching and researching forest restoration. She says, “Restoration has provided me the ecological version of medicine: to evaluate and treat in order to return a system to a healthy state. It’s just that my patients are now the trees.”

Pictured: Eryn collecting data at Lubrecht Forest.