Colorado: Behind the Science

We’ve all seen it on film and TV: A white-coated scientist, alone in the lab, peers into a microscope with furrowed brow for days (or years) at a time. As the foundation of our science-based organization, Conservancy scientists don’t always fit this mold. John Sanderson is one such scientist.

His career in conservation fell from the sky, so to speak. As an undergrad pursuing a degree in aeronautical engineering, Sanderson realized his true calling was the great outdoors.

A post-college stint in the Peace Corps working on a forest program in West Africa sealed the deal. He attended the University of Vermont where he received a master’s degree in botany. It was also during this time that Sanderson developed a little-known love affair with mosses and lichens, particularly those that grow in wetlands.

Now armed with a Ph.D. in ecology from Colorado State University, Sanderson co-directs the Center for Conservation Science and Strategy, while also managing the water program and providing freshwater science support for the Conservancy’s Colorado chapter. He works on a range of issues from conservation planning to development of environmental flow guidelines for streams and rivers, all intended to lead to better protection of at-risk river species and ecosystems. spoke with John Sanderson about why he loves his work, romantic moments on the beach and falling down on the job.
"Before 2000, our water program was essentially one person covering much of the western U.S. Now it is a very robust and productive effort..."

John Sanderson

What do you love most about your job?

John Sanderson:

I work with extraordinarily smart and passionate people on exciting, challenging and worthwhile problems. Each day is a little bit different. Like many Conservancy scientists, I was hired to be somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, and in many ways I still play that role. Yet as the Colorado chapter’s water program has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, we’ve had more staff—including myself—heavily engaged on water conservation efforts. Before 2000, our water program was essentially one person covering much of the western U.S. Now it is a very robust and productive effort with a clear focus and tremendous interest from all sides—donors, staff, partners and others.

I also love being able to live and work in Colorado. It’s an amazing place. I’ve been here 16 years and yet still as I drive 10,000 plus miles for work every year I find nearly every corner of the state jaw-droppingly beautiful.

So what’s the weirdest or most disgusting thing you’ve had to do in the name of science?

John Sanderson:

I once spent three weeks picking heads of polychaetes—a bristly marine worm—out of sediment samples from the shorelines of northern California. My wife, also a scientist, was researching the diets of shorebirds and I was assisting her with pulling samples to send to the lab for identification. Now, whenever we walk along a sandy beach we can share memories of worm parts…I recommend it highly for creating long-lasting bonds!

Sounds pretty gross! Have you ever been in an embarrassing situation on the job or in nature?

John Sanderson:

Definitely. I had a pretty embarrassing moment on Alaska’s north slope when I was part of a crew of scientists conducting a three-week bird nest study in the tundra. One of my first days on the job I learned the hard way that that shallow ponds over permafrost still have ice on the bottom, even when the surface of the lake is open water.

I tried to cross a small pool of water, and on my first step into the water I slipped on the ice and made a dramatic splash, getting soaked from head to toe. It was June, but still only about 20 degrees out. Fortunately, I was dressed well and had eaten about 3,000 calories for breakfast, so we didn’t have to call the helicopter to come get me.

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