Ecologist Spotlight: Auriel Fournier

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Auriel Fournier for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Please state your current affiliation.

Auriel: Mississippi State University, Coastal Research and Extension Center, Biloxi, MS.

Auriel with a giant coot. Photographer: Alex Bond. Image provided by Auriel Fournier.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Auriel: I’m currently a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Mississippi State University, based at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, MS working on Structured Decision Making tools to support the Gulf of Mexico Avian Monitoring Network.

I completed my PhD in Biology at the University of Arkansas through the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in March 2017. My doctoral work focused on the autumn migration ecology of rails, a group of wetland birds, and tradeoffs in wetland management. (check out #morails on twitter for photos live from the field).

My goal is to do work that promotes bird conservation and to help connect the people around me with the natural world. I love spending time in the field, and I love writing code, so I’m trying to weave together a career to help birds and keeps me out in the field and coding. I also really enjoy teaching people about programming and statistics. I am an instructor for Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry and I love sitting down with most anyone to teach them about R, reproducible research and statistics.

What is a “secretive” bird?

Auriel: A bird who’s habits, coloration and habitat selection make detecting it when it is actually around very difficult. Rails fall well within this category (members of the family Rallidae) but so do other birds.

What first interested you in ecology?

Auriel: I grew up in the country, and have always been interested in the outdoors. I came to ecology through ornithology, which might sound weird, but its really birds and bird migration that fascinate me, the ecology of the world around them is something that I came to appreciate once I was in college. I talk more about how I got to where I am on my blog (

What is an example of how your research has influenced conservation decision-making? 

Auriel: My current work is laying the foundation for bird monitoring and research for the next 20 years in the Gulf of Mexico, the monitoring plan that I am helping coordinate will be used by funding decision makers as well as the on the ground researchers to ensure that in 20 years we have a better understanding of the entire Gulf of Mexico system, not just one bird species on one national wildlife refuge.

Catching rails in the field with Justin Lehman. Photographer: Noppadol Paothong. Image provided by Auriel Fournier.

What has inspired you in your career?

Auriel: The wetland managers, government scientists and other conservation practitioners who are ‘fighting the good fight’ with what they have, where they are. Despite being an academic (for now) I don’t really find being apart of the academy very inspiring, its when science meets conservation and gets applied that gets me excited and out of bed each morning.

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

Auriel: Rosalie Edge was an amazing ornithologist and conservationist, I would have loved to have been able to meet her and talk about the challenges she faced in the conservation battles she fought.

What is your favorite bird that you have seen in person?

Auriel: That is an impossible question. I suppose currently its a Yellow Rail, but that could change anytime.

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

Auriel: The past year (finishing my PhD and starting my post doc) I have struggled with two things, which are related to some degree. My mental health took a sharp downward turn right after I graduated, despite immediately starting a job that I love, and I also really struggled with what I wanted to do after my post doc, and the many many many many people who felt they knew better then I did what would make me happy. I’m still struggling with this, especially since I’m not sure that the Tenure Track Academic life is for me, for many reasons. That really upsets a lot of people, and I’ve had to learn to fight my need to make people happy, it just stirs up my mental health issues even more.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Auriel: I am my own worst enemy in that I always have way to many projects, so when things get tough, I switch to something else, come back to it later. Often times stepping away really helps. I also lean heavily at times on several close science friends who understand the ups and downs of science.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Auriel: Anytime I’m covered in mud and holding a bird is a good one. I especially love moments where I see new bits of natural history, like seeing a Sora dive under water for the first time.

What do you do in your “off” time?

Auriel: I have two dogs who I love playing with, I really enjoy cooking and am getting into baking and I love gardening, along with any kind of outdoor recreation, from backpacking to paddling to rock climbing.

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

Auriel: No matter where life takes you, you can love the natural world around you and work to conserve it, we need teachers, and lawyers and parents and law enforcement and engineers that love the environment, just as much as we need environmental scientists.

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

Auriel: Depends on if they have non dairy milk options (I’m lactose intolerant), if they do, then some kind of chai latte, if not, then probably a black coffee.