Amazing Students Profiles

Tara Gancos Crawford

Gancos Crawford
Tara Gancos Crawford

Ph.D. student Tara Crawford, who has been honored for her service work along with her academic talent, plans to work at the interface of wildlife ecology, natural resource management and community development.


Sandy Springs, Georgia

High School:

North Springs High School

Degree objective:

Ph.D. in integrative conservation and forestry and natural resources

Other degrees:

Prior to starting my doctoral program at UGA, I earned a Master of Science in biology from Arizona State University, a Master of Arts in environmental studies from Brown University, and a Bachelor of Science in ecology from the University of Georgia. That’s right, I’m a “Double Dawg”!

Expected graduation:

May 2018

University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships:

This spring I was honored to receive the 2016 Dean’s Service Award from the UGA Rotaract Club and Rotary Club of Athens, which is awarded to collegiate students who go above and beyond for both their colleges and their communities to make them an even better place. I also received the Martha Love May Memorial Scholarship through Warnell. It’s a foundation-endowed scholarship that is provided annually to a professional or graduate student who is actively involved in extracurricular activities, both inside and outside of Warnell. Last year I received the Archie E. Patterson Endowed Scholarship through Warnell.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, I had the pleasure of representing the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and our graduate student body as the president of the Warnell Graduate Student Association. The year prior, I served as Warnell’s graduate student representative on the university-wide Graduate Student Association, and I helped establish the undergraduate-graduate mentor program in Warnell the year before that.

Most recently, I was offered an assistantship through the Public Service and Outreach Graduate Assistant Program administered by the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach. I’ve happily accepted the offer and will begin working as a graduate assistant for the J.W. Fanning Institute of Leadership Development this summer, a position that I will fulfill over the 2016-2017 academic year.  This position builds upon the work I have been doing with the Fanning Institute over the last year as I completed a community-engaged service project and internship with Fanning faculty that were focused on integrating the knowledge and tools of structured decision-making that I am applying in the context of my dissertation work with alligator harvest programs, to general community settings in the context of Fanning’s community leadership development programs. As a result of my interactions with Public Service and Outreach and the Fanning Institute, I have also had the opportunity to provide a student perspective in several planning meetings for a leadership development program for science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduate students that is being developed by the Graduate School in collaboration with the Fanning Institute.

Over the last three years I also received several student presentation awards during Warnell’s annual Graduate Student Symposium and a first place Student Presentation Award at the annual meeting of the Georgia Chapter of The Wildlife Society. During the first year of my Ph.D. program, I was also a top-10 finalist in the campus-wide Three-Minute Thesis Competition.

Lastly, my time at UGA over the last three years has been greatly enriched by the Integrative Conservation (ICON) Ph.D. program administered through the Center for Integrative Conservation Research on campus. This innovative doctoral program is comprised of Ph.D. students from ecology, geography, anthropology, and forestry and natural resources. Through it, I have had the amazing opportunity to gain expertise not only in my field of wildlife management, but also in the fields of the partnering disciplines. This program has expanded my worldview and perspective on my potential future practice as a conservation practitioner, and it has helped me learn to collaborate across disciplines and fields of practice to develop integrative solutions to complex conservation challenges that face our interrelated social and ecological systems.

Current Employment:

I am a graduate assistant in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Each spring, I serve as the teaching assistant for the split-level “Conservation Decision Making” course offered in Warnell. The remainder of each year, I work as a research assistant in the Georgia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. As an RA, I am working with state wildlife management agencies in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina to establish a more efficient, transparent and defensible process for setting annual hunting regulations for public alligator harvest programs.

Along with helping to create a new decision-making framework for harvest management, I am developing decision support tools to help agencies identify optimal regulatory policies, based on their current understanding of the resource and their desire to achieve multiple short- and long-term management objectives concurrently. This project comprises a large part of my dissertation research that is focusing more broadly on finding ways to address the ubiquitous challenges in wildlife management related to navigating inherent tradeoffs between ecological and social goals, and making decisions in spite of pervasive uncertainty.

Family Ties to UGA:

I’m the first Bulldawg in my family.

I chose to attend UGA because…

As an undergraduate, I chose to attend UGA because I got in. I originally wanted to go to school out of state because I was eager to start exploring the world, but I applied to UGA because it offered free tuition through the Hope Scholarship program. In the end, after being deferred from some of my other options, I jumped on the chance to attend school in Athens. It was one of the best decisions of my life and a testament to the saying, “You don’t always get what you want … you get what you need.” While at UGA, I made amazing lifelong friends, discovered the joy of UGA football, met my husband, found the field of ecology and realized that I could pursue a career as a wildlife ecologist, following my passion for learning about nature and the world around us, while trying to inspire a more equitable, inclusive and compassionate society.  UGA was everything I hoped my college experience would be.

I chose to return to UGA for my doctorate for several reasons. I was initially attracted to the RA position that I now hold, working to improve decision-making in the context of alligator harvest programs, because it would allow me to have a direct positive impact on wildlife management. I was also familiar with the reputation of UGA’s renowned Warnell School, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn and work with some of the top natural resource scientists in the country. Lastly, I came back to UGA because no place that I lived in the seven years since I graduated from UGA as an undergraduate has measured up. UGA is my favorite place to work and study. Nothing beats the variety of affordable restaurants and bars around town, great music, diversity of festivals that occupy our city streets, opportunities to attend UGA football games, and the beauty of the area’s rolling hills and lush mixed deciduous forests. In spite of my love for exploring new places, I couldn’t pass up a chance for a second tour de the Classic City.

My favorite things to do on campus are…

… interacting with my colleagues, peers and mentors — sharing and discussing new ideas, problem-solving research challenges and finding ways to collaborate, and tailgating and attending UGA football games. Go Dawgs!

When I have free time, I like…

… to grab my camera and head into the woods, or down to the river behind my house, with my dogs. I can easily spend hours wandering around, exploring the outdoors, trying to capture the beauty of the flora and fauna around me on film.

The craziest thing I’ve done is…

… started to pursue a secondary M.S. in statistics while working on my Ph.D. There was a time that I thought I was incapable of developing any kind of expertise in quantitative analysis, but I’ve come to realize the critical importance of having strong quantitative skills if I’m going to pursue a career as a scientist, and I’ve actually come to enjoy the pain and triumph of acquiring stronger statistical intuition and analytical expertise.

I also lived in Jamaica for two years during my service in the Peace Corps after graduating from college. It was an eye-opening experience to live as a minority and work to become a respected member of the community in another country. While working for an environmental nonprofit organization in Jamaica, I came to realize that environmental issues are really people issues — we cannot be separated from considerations of nature and the ecology of natural resources. This realization — that people are not only drivers of environmental degradation, but also victims and integral parts of the solution — shaped the remainder of my career. Henceforward I have been seeking ways to better manage and conserve ecological systems while fostering human well-being and prosperity.

My favorite place to study is…

… my back deck, which is nestled among the trees, overlooking the North Oconee River on the east side of town.

My favorite professor is…

… hands-down, my Ph.D. advisor, Clint Moore. For the last three years, Clint has been my research supervisor, academic advisor, professional guidance counselor and statistics tutor. Clint is an exemplary mentor. He provides instruction, counseling, and emotional and intellectual support in all of the diverse aspects of my blossoming career as a wildlife manager, ecologist, statistician, community-engaged scholar and educator. He is always reminding me that it is important to pursue what inspires me. He gives me great advice and helps me make connections with professionals within and external to our department who may be able to help me further my career. Perhaps most importantly, Clint makes me feel comfortable learning. He is patient and nonjudgmental, so I am not afraid to ask questions or take intellectual risks in applying what I am learning. I know I have his support and that he will kindly help redirect me if I am going in the wrong direction. As a result, I am able to embrace the learning process without fear of making mistakes, which I have found to be invaluable in helping me to learn and grow.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with…

I would love to spend an afternoon with Rachel Carson (1907-1964), a writer, scientist and ecologist perhaps most well known as the author of “Silent Spring” (1962). Carson is credited with helping to start the environmental movement in the United States. She publicized the negative human and environmental health impacts of indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, particularly DDT, which ultimately led to its ban. Her work was fiercely opposed by the chemical industry and segments of the government, and there were numerous attempts to discredit her. In spite of all of this, she inspired a reversal in national pesticide policy and the grassroots environmental movement that ultimately led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I admire her fortitude and unwillingness to let intimidation keep her from raising public awareness of threats to societal well-being. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right, in spite of the risks to her career and reputation. I hope to exhibit the same integrity and courage throughout my own career.

If I knew I could not fail, I would…

… play the lottery. Then, I would use my winnings to travel the world, buy land, invest in conservation efforts, volunteer for awesome research projects and humanitarian efforts, and award grants to people who are working to find innovative ways to improve environmental stewardship, and balance nature conservation and human well-being.

If money was not a consideration, I would love to…

… travel the world as a nature photographer and human aid worker.

After graduation, I plan to…

Pursue a post-doc position, and ultimately a faculty position at a research-intensive university such as UGA. I want work at the interface of wildlife ecology, natural resource management and community development, and I believe an academic position as a community-engaged scholar and researcher will enable me to do this. I want to apply my professional expertise to catalyze cross-sectoral partnerships to generate public value (i.e. goods and services that benefit society) around issues concerning the use, protection and enhancement of our natural resources. I want to be a boundary spanner that helps to blend cultures, such as those of scientists, policymakers and analysts, practitioners, and the public, to enable us to be more receptive to different ways of thinking about the complexities of wildlife conservation and public policy issues, and the inherent trade-offs that will emerge among available options. I want to teach and empower others, and facilitate collaboration among individuals and groups by bridging boundaries between different communities and sectors of society. From my perspective, our ability to develop and implement effective solutions to social and ecological problems is contingent upon our capacity to capitalize on our individual and collective strengths, and inspire and empower one another toward collective action.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

… learning about the global distribution of biomes during a plant biogeography class during my junior year of college. Prior to that, I had been a biology pre-med major and, having completed all of my core science classes, I had recently come to realize and appreciate how physics, chemistry, biology and ecology were all interrelated. During that plant biogeography class, as we were learning about global atmospheric circulation patterns and how we can predict what type of plant communities are found in different parts of the world based on a relatively small set of principles regarding the underlying drivers of climate and the spatial distribution of land masses on Earth, I realized I loved studying the patterns and processes of nature. That evening, I switched my major to ecology. I recognized that the field of ecology encompasses all of the other dimensions of the natural and life sciences that enthrall me, and by pursuing a career as an ecologist, I would be able to endlessly study life on Earth, professionally. I lucked out by being at UGA, home of the Odum School of Ecology; I was able to earn my degree from one of the top ecology schools in the country. I have never looked back.