Jessica O’Connell Connects Ecology Research with Local Conservation Efforts

February 8, 2021 • by Amanda Figueroa-Nieves

Learn about Jessica O'Connell's decision to join UT Austin's Department of Marine Science and what her research focuses on.

A woman with binoculars and a notebook walking along a trail in a forest

Photo courtesy of Jessica O'Connell.

Jessica O'Connell, an ecologist, remote-sensing specialist and data scientist, recently joined the Department of Marine Science as an assistant professor. O'Connell worked in wetlands across North America before making her way to the Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, where she works to uncover what causes change in wetland systems while being responsive to local conservation and management issues. Part of that work looks at how climate change and sea level rise may impact coastal marshes.

What brought you to the field of wetland ecology?

I got drawn into it initially by starting with wildlife. Wildlife are charismatic and their issues are easy to understand when you are young and first thinking about science. I was a bird ecologist initially, and I volunteered in a bird rehabilitation hospital, where I often worked with waterbirds. I first studied birds in wetlands and then realized studying the habitats that support the wildlife was going to be more impactful in conservation.


What drew you to UT Austin?

I was drawn to UT because it is an excellent school — it is one of the most high-performing public universities. Participating in a public university with that mission of training students and giving access to education for all students is important. UT is well known for its academic and research excellence, and the Marine Science Institute is located on the Gulf, so I have direct access to the habitats I study. It is great to have the inspiration of the environment right there at my fingertips, and I can bring undergraduates out into the field.


What do you hope to accomplish as a faculty member?

I hope to accomplish two things. First, I study basic, fundamental science. We try to understand the basic things about what causes change in the systems of coastal and interior wetlands and how they support habitats and wildlife. We are also trying to be responsive to local conservation and management issues. For example, the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program has strategic plans to ensure that the coast is a wonderful place for people to visit and those habitats are sustainable. We work with them to do science that is responsive to the issues related to sea level rise, related to climate change, and related to supporting fisheries and waterfowl. We want to keep the Texas coast beautiful.

Why is it important to you to keep science accessible to all?

One of our missions is to keep science accessible and to engage directly with people who need the science. Doing fundamental science is important, but we also have to be sensitive to local needs and ensure that when we complete the research projects the science gets back to those managing the land. We are making the data publicly accessible, and we present at local and national meetings so folks know what the major research outcomes were.

I create open-source, freely available tools for analysis of the data and decision making, which helps remove the financial barriers for people to access the science and maximizes the impact of the work. The goal is that the research should be bigger than just a publication — folks who need the information and the tools can continue to utilize them long after the project is done. For example, we work with Ducks Unlimited, which is a conservation partner creating habitat for waterfowl. We are creating an open-source tool for modeling surface water inundation, since the amount of water available to support waterfowl can change quite a bit over time. Ducks Unlimited can use this tool to support the conservation of ducks well after we leave the project.


What are some advancements you would like to see in the next 5-10 years?

Science is becoming more interdisciplinary, so you have to be more of a jack of all trades, as opposed to a specialist. I think ecoinformatics and geoinformatics are going to be tools that will be increasingly used and increasingly necessary in order to learn and understand about the world. Ecologists are going to have to become better computer scientists. We are going to have to get better at using our computers in the way that folks in other fields are doing.


What would you like to tell students interested in joining the field?

I always tell undergraduates who want to join my lab that you need to be prepared to get muddy. We are out in beautiful locations, but we work hard and get dirty too. Wetland science is a field that has a lot of employment opportunities through conservation and education organizations, as well as in academia. We always have space in our lab, so if you would like to try it, always feel free to reach out.