Beckett Hills

Graduate Student

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As a South Carolina native, I grew up playing in the freshwater Appalachian streams and salt marsh creeks of the coast. I always enjoyed learning about the natural habitats and animals around me, and as I gained more independence, traveling to see new places became increasingly important. After my undergraduate experience earning a degree in Geological Sciences, I pursued a career for 10 years as a wilderness educator before returning to work towards a M.S. in Coastal and Marine Systems Science.

While the time in between my undergraduate and graduate studies was not focused on science, it was quite instrumental in my exposure to the diverse ecosystems of the west. My interest in ecosystems was piqued while working for programs such as Outward Bound in Oregon, California, Washington and Idaho, and the Chadwick School in Los Angeles. Work often consisted of long expeditions (10-30 days) into the backcountry, and it was while I watched the annual ecological cycles turn each year that my hypothesis-driven mind began scrutinizing the different patterns around me. Armed with a background in geology and geography I had a good foundation in what the “basement” of ecosystems looked like, but it wasn’t until I connected the biological components that I became truly captivated (birds!).

My graduate research turned towards coastal systems, focused on a wild population of Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) with two broad goals: 1) use radio-telemetry to study summer (nesting season) home range, habitat use, and thermal ecology; and, 2) coordinate nest survey data with field measurements and habitat data derived from LiDAR for the purpose of developing a geospatial model useful in the prediction of potential nest habitat and the identification of probable “hotspots” among the uplands proximal to a coastal salt marsh. The research and course work were instrumental in my exposure to the use of remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) for spatial analysis of ecosystem components.

Now, I look to continue my development by integrating my passion for ecological inquiry with the rapidly developing technologies capable of digitizing our physical world into pixels. At this point, my remote sensing experience has been limited to acoustic (sidescan sonar or single-beam and multibeam echosounders), seismic (chirp), and aerial (LiDAR) methods. My future research will capitalize on various forms of aerial methods in order to gain insight into terrestrial processes and patterns that happen on a large, landscape scale. I embrace the use of open source software and collaborative tools to analyze spatial resources, and I would like to expand this work focused on two levels: the macro scale technologies of remote sensing and GIS, and the micro scale technologies used for telemetry or computer microcontrollers for sensor networks or data logging.

All of this stems from my time spent playing outside, stomping through puddles, paddling whitewater, and climbing high enough to see the landscapes draped around me, guiding me toward a career built on exploration and study.

Contact: whills@wisc.edu