Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration: Kent Williges

A botanist with over 20 years of experience, Kent currently focuses his research on the response of plant communities to various disturbance mechanisms.

Kent WilligesDegrees / Certifications
B.S. Range and Wildlife Management, Texas A & I University, 1986
M.S. Biology with an emphasis in Ornithology, Texas A & I University, 1989

I have 20 years experience working as a botanist conducting plant ecology studies in native plant communities of Florida and southeast Georgia. A native of Texas, my career in Florida began in 1990 while employed as a Biological Scientist at the University of Florida's Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit. I worked for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from 1995-1998 where I worked on reclamation of phosphate mines. I joined the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 1998 where my current research interest continues to focus on the response of plant communities to various disturbance mechanisms.

What are you working on now?
I am working on plant ecology research projects. These include native ground cover restoration, effects of mechanical restoration on scrub ecosystems, the development of best management practices for flatwoods ecosystems, effects of cattle grazing on four peninsular Wildlife Management Areas, and the control of natalgrass on the Lake Wales Ridge.

How is this information beneficial?
These projects are designed to aid the management side of FWC. All of our projects originated as questions our managers had regarding best management practices for certain plant communities, or as problems such as exotic control that the managers are currently facing and need research assistance with in order to deal with effectively. Ultimately however, the knowledge gained from these projects will be beneficial to all land managers in the state of Florida.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?
This was not my original career interest. I originally wanted to be a professional athlete and then later an ornithologist! I was a bird bander for several years while working on my Master's thesis and fully intended to pursue that interest. However, I was offered a job right out of grad school working at the Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Florida which involved studying plant primary productivity in the marshes of Lake Okeechobee. The money was too good to pass up at the time so I accepted. Luckily, I had good botanical skills resulting from the coursework I took for my Range and Wildlife Management undergrad degree, and the fact that I learned many things from my dad who had a PhD in botany! However, I am mostly self-taught regarding the flora of Florida. After several years of plant ecology work experience, I realized I had pigeon-holed myself without even knowing it what with the extremely competitive nature of our business and all. I was no longer able to compete for ornithology jobs. However, it doesn't bother me much now days because I continue to learn something new almost every day, and I seem to have found my niche in the Agency.

What is your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment was conducting a successful vegetation damage assessment for the state of Florida during the Alafia River Acid Spill of 1997. However, that was when I worked for our sister agency, DEP. My biggest accomplishment while employed with FWRI would probably be assisting with developing the study design and sampling methodology for the Objectives-based Vegetation Management program.

What do you like most about your career?
The thing I enjoy most about my career is the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and botanical skills to the younger scientists just as my mentor and major professor, Dr. Alan Chaney, once did for me. I also enjoy the opportunity to work in some of the coolest habitats in the country that not a whole lot of people get to see.

What do you like least about your career?
I'm finding that as I get older, I'm enjoying travel away from home less and less. Our projects are scattered all over the state extending from the Apalachicola River down to Lake Okeechobee. In this field, you have to go to where the plants are but it can put a lot of stress on personal relationships when you're away from home for weeks at a time.

What are some of your biggest challenges?
My biggest challenge is balancing my scientist role with my supervisor role. Paperwork and dealing with personnel issues take up an unbelievable amount of time. It makes it hard to focus on the science at times.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
My advice would be to listen to your inner self and not become discouraged. When my friends in college found out I was majoring in wildlife, they told me in several years I would be waiting tables at night to help support my income! Thankfully I never let that kind of talk get me down! I kept plugging along and now make enough money to live comfortably. If I can do it, anybody can. However we all know no one is going to become wealthy in this field. Your heart really has to be in it in order to make a go of it. If the heart is willing, then my advice is to take advantage of as many opportunities such as interning, volunteering, or additional class work as you can. It is these types of things that will make your resume stand out from the rest of the pile.

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