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todd pierson (’13) ecology; udall scholar

Todd Pierson, who hopes to do his part in improving the environment through a career as a professor and researcher, said that he was “plugged into” pursuing his interest in amphibian ecology on his first day on the UGA campus, after meeting with Dr. John Maerz, who immediately put him to work researching a new species of salamander he had discovered.

Enamored with amphibians from an early age, Todd has traveled far and wide in search of the vertebrate animals many would go out of their way to avoid. His research has taken him to the Southern Appalachians, Sardinia, Guatemala, Guyana, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

His most notable excursion was the one closest to the UGA campus, when he pursued Maerz’s discovery – the Patch-Nosed Salamander – in the North Georgia Mountains.

“There’s this family of salamanders that makes up 70 percent of the diversity worldwide, but they’re almost exclusively found in the Americas,” Todd said. “And the biggest hotspot is here in the Southern Appalachians, an hour or two north of Athens.”

In his short time at UGA, Pierson has formed an alliance with researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, which boasts one of the largest research laboratories for amphibians in the world, and he’s twice traveled to Guatemala in search of elusive salamander species and spent a portion of this summer in Oman and the United Arab Emirates with the Berkeley researchers.

Todd says the skills he has developed from these experiences “are incalculable” and will be instrumental in his future – “from learning how to write proposals, abstracts, and papers to designing experiments to traveling in the wilderness of a foreign country.”

Todd’s passion for ecological conservation has certainly made an impression beyond campus as earlier this spring he was awarded the prestigious Udall Scholarship, a national award for sophomores and juniors pursuing careers in environmental or Native American issues.

In addition to traversing highlands, rainforests, and beaches, Todd has been an effective advocate for the environment on the UGA campus, with membership and leadership roles in the Herpetology Society, the Ecology Club’s Game Day Recycling, the Go Green Alliance and the EcoFocus Film Festival.

One of Todd’s most notable on-campus accomplishments has been his participation in Game Day Recycling, an initiative supported by many alumni and current Fellows which ultimately resulted in the UGA Athletic Association’s establishment of a recycling program as part of its contract with its waste-management service provider.

Although he says he’d “live a happy life just photographing salamanders,” Todd knows that to continue such work will require a healthy dose of education for the masses, even if it’s just one student at a time.

 “It’s great to study the population dynamics of a tiny salamander in North Georgia,” he said, “but if I’m interested in conserving that, I have to appeal to more than amphibian biologists. The survival of the species and biodiversity as a whole is dependent upon everybody, not just a tiny subset of the population that studies it.”

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