Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Ashley Steel

Office of Communication
April 21st, 2017 at 10:15AM

Portrait photo of Ashley Steel
Ashley Steel. (Field photo, photographer unknown.)

Ashley Steel’s obsession with putting photos on pillows, umbrellas, and other surfaces is matched only by her passion for statistics, rivers, and the points at which the two intersect. This explains why Ashley now makes her living as a statistician for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. Born in North Carolina, Ashley spent time in Washington D.C., but she grew up in Boston, Massachusetts surrounded by historic buildings and quaint New England towns. Just as her father helped Ashley hone her own critical thinking skills, now she in turn seeks out opportunities to inspire the same love of learning in the next generation through teaching and mentoring.

What led you to the U.S. Forest Service and when did you start working here?

When I was in graduate school, the first papers I read and many of the first ecologists I met were from the Pacific Northwest Research Station, also known as PNW, so I always had a feeling that PNW was the hub of exciting research on rivers and forests. After graduate school, I worked on salmon, statistics, and rivers at NOAA for a decade. About eight years ago, I flipped open USAJOBS, the official federal government job website, and typed in “statistician”. I was just curious, not actively seeking new employment. The first job that popped up was for the “Station Statistician” at PNW, and it honestly seemed like the description was written specifically for me. I realized I should take the opportunity seriously and apply.

My transition to PNW became a way to work with and learn from many of the famous, at least to me, scientists whose research I had been reading since graduate school. Plus, I now had a chance to work in a more terrestrial and freshwater agency where science could truly inform land management.

What do you do in the Forest Service and what is your favorite part of your job?

As the station statistician, I see myself as a hub for statistical resources as well as a quantitative ecologist. I promote high-quality science by helping scientists and their students with study plans, statistical consulting, and manuscript review. I also started a statistical intern program to bring more statistical horsepower to the station. I do my own research too, applying statistics and statistical ideas to rivers and landscapes. For example, I try to figure out what drives variability in water temperature regimes in rivers, how humans are changing those patterns, and how fish and other aquatic species may be affected. My favorite part is teaching and mentoring, but I enjoy it all.

Tell us about where you grow up.

I was born in North Carolina and spent time in D.C. when I was very young, but I really grew up in Boston. I still speak really fast and am probably quite a bit more blunt than average. While I am happy in my current home in the Pacific Northwest, I miss the people and the old buildings in Boston, small New England towns, crisp winter days, and the wide open beaches of Cape Cod.

A photo of Ashley Steeling measuring water temperature with a real thermometer to calibrate a digital logger.
Ashley measures water temperature with a real thermometer to calibrate a digital logger. (Photo by Colin Sowder.)

Who or what inspired you growing up?

My Dad. He encouraged me to have a mission in life, something I really wanted to fight for. He encouraged me to have a career that I loved and to value science. Most importantly, he really pushed me to “think.” That is his word for a whole suite of actions: being skeptical, being logical, asking good questions, and puzzling out ethics. We did math problems for fun in the car and filled out notebooks with Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion when I got a chemistry set. I’m sure I was an impossible teenager, but he just kept nudging me forward, introducing me to interesting people and encouraging me to seek out new challenges.

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

Now I have two teenagers of my own, so free time is a little tough to come by. As a family, we love to travel. Not vacationing, but travel. We’ve been lucky to be able to explore many destinations together over the years, and I am amazed and happy that my daughters still want to hang out, laugh at old travel stories, and plan new adventures together. My personal passion has always been whitewater rafting, and I’ve learned to tele-ski to keep up with my husband. I also really like travel writing and am somewhat obsessed with putting photos on things: making photo pillows, photo umbrellas, etc. Although even the day before I started, I would have bet a million dollars that I would never take a martial arts class, I have also been taking karate now for over a decade. I train with my kids, enjoy the comradery, and try to keep my aging joints from seizing up.

What is your highest personal or professional achievement?

My career has been wide rather than tall – lots of small successes rather than a push toward a singular goal. Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote a curriculum for teaching middle school kids the process of science. That is probably the achievement with the potential for the longest and most valuable impact. I also recently published a paper that brought together about twenty years of research on variability in water temperature patterns. The paper includes videos to show the complexity of riverine thermal regimes, examples from multiple field projects, and a clear link between the math of variance and the biological implications. I’m pretty proud of that paper.

Ashley Steel teaching a workshop on science inquiry in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Ashley Steel teaching a workshop on science inquiry in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo from STEM Education Center, Chiang Mai.)

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

I would like the public to see the people of the Forest Service as they are: an amazing collection of folks who are passionate about trees, rivers, science, and helping people experience the outdoors. I would like the public to see our natural resources as the backbone of America, our history, and our future. The Forest Service takes care of those trees, trails, deer, owls, fish, lichen, lakes, and rivers for everyone.

What are your future career goals?

I would like to work more on statistical training, not so much the mechanics of the math but the foundations of statistical thinking. And I would like to transition, slowly, from generating science to leveraging science for making land management decisions. I’ve recently worked on two exciting international projects, and I see lots of opportunity for making an even broader international impact on science training and natural resource management.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?

Dig in! Be patient, volunteer with your local forest, volunteer at a research station, and gain related experience with non-profits and local agencies. Spend time in the forests and the campgrounds, talk to every Forest Service employee you meet, and take all the classes you can on science, land management, ecology and, of course, statistics.