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Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Charles van Riper

This is the first in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientist Emeriti. Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS.

Charles van Riper III
Charles van Riper III, Photo Credit: MICHELLE ALBERT

What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place?

Like many, I came into the USGS when former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt brought all DOI biologists into the National Biological Service (NBS) in 1993, and we were then moved to the USGS Biological Resources Division in 1996. Prior to that, I was with the National Park Service helping run the Coop Units at Northern Arizona University.

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus?

I was a federal employee for 35 years, 17 of them with the USGS. I retired in 2013, and three days after filing my retirement paperwork, I became a Scientist Emeritus.

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?

Title: ST (Senior Scientist) Research Ecologist, although who knows what the T stands for? Specialty is ornithology—birds, diseases of birds, epidemiology, transmission of bird diseases, etc.

What Science Center do you answer to as an Emeritus?

Currently I answer to the Southwest Biological Science Center located in Flagstaff, Arizona, but before that, in the NBS I was administratively with the Fort Collins Science Center (FORT), in Fort Collins, Colorado, and at the Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center (FRESC) in Corvallis, Oregon, although I never left my Flagstaff office.

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS?

Personally, I am most proud of becoming an ST. Also, Anne Kinsinger, now the Associate Director for Ecosystems, asked me to be part of the team that completed the 1999 USGS Science Strategy that helped to redesign the direction of USGS research for several decades. Disease research was first formally introduced into that 1999 USGS Science Strategy, which is important because the USGS knows where wildlife are located and which animals carry zoonotic diseases. For example, USGS scientists were able to track West Nile Virus because we know major bird migratory pathways. During the West Nile Virus outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started using the migratory data maps we were producing.   

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on?

When I became an ST, people didn’t know what to do with us so they largely left me alone to pursue my own research goals. In searching for where I wanted to direct the future of my research, I looked at the past papers I had written and to my surprise the ones that were cited the most were the foundational biology papers, not my modeling papers.

So, for the past 15 years, I’ve been studying Cordilleran Flycatchers in Southwest Colorado and most recently on Mt. Lemmon in Arizona. It’s very exciting because this large dataset allows me to ask questions about the full life cycle and migratory patterns of the bird, and I can ask second- and third-level questions because we have such a robust data set. The solar-powered geolocators we use on these very small birds help identify locations as they collect data, latitude and longitude, daily. We can’t track the bird because the storage batteries aren’t big enough to transmit so we have to recapture the birds with mist nets to pull the data off the locators.

Birds are moving different from what I hypothesized—I have found that their view of the world is very different than mine, so many of my hypotheses have to be continually revised. Tracking flying insect biomass is also helping us predict bird movements. These birds face high mortality during migration, so this information will help identify critical stopover habitat as they migrate to Mexico from their breeding grounds in the Rocky Mountains.

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus?

I appreciate the freedom to do research that I feel is important. I also appreciate the support from the Southwest Biological Science Center leadership, David Lytle and Theodore Meils.

Mark Sogge and Charles van Riper III at van Riper's retirement party
Mark Sogge, a former van Riper graduate student and currently a USGS Regional Director, the MC at Charles van Riper's retirement party in Flagstaff, AZ (public domain).

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus?

Since retiring, I can no longer have graduate students, and that has been a real eyeopener to the productivity that students added to my research program!

I now participate in mentoring and outreach in four ways: 1) I continue to be involved with professional societies, such as the American Ornithological Society and the Wildlife Disease Association, while also reviewing journal articles. 2) I review Research Grade Evaluation (RGE) packages for USGS scientists, and tenure packages for university staff; 3) I mentor post-docs and still write papers with some of my former students; and 4) I informally mentor people at the office when they have questions about future research and career opportunities.

What are/were the most important decisions you made as a research scientist for your organization?

The most important decision I made is the move to cross-over, that is, having one foot in science and one in administration. I view myself as research scientist, but scientists also have to speak administrative-ese, which helps to advocate for scientists when administrative decisions happen and also to be involved with decisions and policies that affect USGS scientists. It’s really hard to move your science forward if you don’t have a clear view of management. You can also have a positive influence if you understand the management side of things.

Which one thing do you wish you would done differently during your career?

I would have done more outreach to elementary and middle-aged school kids. Outreach was difficult because there is no reward for that in the RGE process. It is now apparent through my work with flycatchers that the public does have an interest in research and is hungry for this information. Every time I am doing field work in Mt. Lemmon, Arizona, I get stopped by curious people asking what I am working on.

What is your best advice for early and mid-career scientists? 

Know your job, know what your supervisor expects of you. If you are a research grade scientist, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has a circular that describes the four factor criteria for your job. Follow that guidance! We tend to do what we want to do and what we feel comfortable doing, but we have to understand what is expected of us in our job. Don’t get comfortable! 

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows?

Follow your heart—don’t listen to what others think you should do. For me, retiring meant continuing to go into the office (without having to go to meetings) and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. Everyone else has an idea of what you should do as a retired person, but do what you want and take time to enjoy what you like doing.

How are you spending your time during the pandemic?

Staying isolated, sitting in my garden, under peach and apricot trees. Trying to write papers, but it’s harder than doing that in the office, there’s too much to do at home.  I have to say, I do miss going into the office.