Faces of Innovation: Dexter Strother

His journey from wildland fire fighter to research ecologist

Dexter Strother digging a fire line. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.
Dexter Strother digging a fire line. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Dexter Strother is an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station’s (SRS) Center for Forest Disturbance Science located in Athens, Georgia. Dexter is a young man on a mission who has accomplished a lot in his short career. He has worked for the Forest Service since 2007 and although it is not the career path he initially chose, things have worked out better than he ever thought possible.

What led you to the Forest Service?

I graduated from high school, with plans to join my half-brother at Florida A&M University and play basketball, despite the fact that I had received a basketball scholarship to St. Francis in Chicago.

Things were going well until I returned to Florida A&M after Christmas break my freshman year to find out that my bank account had a hold on it for $5800. I tried to get a school loan, but I was too late. I went to a local bank to get a loan, but was turned down.

Fate led me to the Forest Service liaison on campus, Ted Willis, who explained that I could get a job fighting fires. That summer, I went to the Ocala Fire Management Office and met with Mike Dryden and John Ramsey, and began training to be a wildland fire technician.

When I returned to school in the fall, Mr. Willis told me about the Multicultural Workforce Strategic Initiatives program that would pay my tuition as long as I agreed to work one year for every year my tuition was paid. I spent the next two summers as a fire technician on the Tonto National Forest working and going to school.

From there, I spent the summer of 2010 on the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina. They had a slow fire season, so I started helping out with silviculture projects. I developed an interest in forestry and transferred to Alabama A&M University (AAMU) because Florida A&M did not have an accredited forestry program.

In December 2011, I was presented with an opportunity to speak at an upcoming meeting with AAMU’s Center of Excellence and the Southern Research Station. After the meeting, I met SRS representatives Rob Doudrick, Greg Ruark, and Gerry Jackson. They asked if I had ever thought about graduate school. I said no, and explained that I was under a Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) agreement and that was good enough for me. They told me about the benefits of working with SRS and the potential to move up in the organization. I immediately started studying for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), took the exam, graduated from AAMU in May 2012, and started graduate school at the University of Georgia at Athens that fall.

What is your research focus area?

My research focus is on forest ecology, fire ecology, and soil ecology. Specifically I study black carbon. Black carbon, a byproduct of wildland fire, is important because it takes labile carbon, which is fast cycling carbon, and moves it into a slower cycling pool. This has huge implications for global warming and provides a more holistic look at fire and its effect on our forest landscape.

What developed this interest?

I decided that I wanted to study black carbon after meeting and talking with my boss Joseph O’Brien and my team leader Mac Callaham at the Forest Disturbance Science unit in Athens. Black carbon seemed like the best way to bridge both soil and fire ecology.

What is your proudest accomplishment or greatest achievement?

I am most proud of the Certificate of Merit I received from the Forest Service and the Life Saving Certificate I received from Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. I was in my third year with the Forest Service and headed to the office to fill out some paper work when my fire lead and I noticed smoke coming from the back on an RV parked on the side of the road. After getting the attention of the driver, we found out that he had pulled over to rest and was not aware of the smoke. The driver informed us that his wife was with him and that she was paralyzed from the neck down. The fire lead called 911 and rookie firefighter Adam Rausch and I got the woman out of the RV. As we were wheeling her away from the RV, the propane tank exploded. The explosion sent the windshield flying, narrowly missing us. That was the most intense and memorable moment of my life.


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