Women in Science: Karen Abt

The Women in Science series features women scientists from across the Southern Research Station – their education, career paths, challenges, achievements, and inspirations.

Sailor, surfer, backpacker, economist: Abt’s research career has included many travels and experiences. USFS photo.

Meet SRS scientist Karen Abt, a research economist with the Forest Economics and Policy unit in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Her team studies the economics of forest disturbances, forest polices and tax programs, and forest product markets. Their research strives to improve the economic foundation for natural resource management and decision making.

Abt leads a team that makes short- and long-term forecasts for wildland fire suppression costs. She also studies how national and international policies affect trends in southern forest timber supply and demand.

Abt didn’t start out in natural resources – and certainly not in economics. “In high school, I was a sailor and backpacker, and I headed off to the University of California Santa Barbara to study French. I wanted to work at the United Nations,” says Abt. “I quickly learned that I wasn’t good enough at either French or surfing to stay at UCSB, and I eventually graduated with a B.A. in Geography and City Planning from Cal State Long Beach.”

From there, Abt worked as a city planner for six years, then decided that she needed something different. So she did what any creative, courageous young professional might do: she bought a campervan, got a golden retriever, and headed off on a year-long road trip.

“While visiting a friend in Frisco, Colorado, I gathered my courage and walked into the Dillon Ranger District Office (on the White River National Forest) and told them I wanted to know what I would need to study to get a job with the Forest Service,” says Abt. “I worked in fire dispatch in Dillon, Montana that summer and decided to pursue research in forest economics.”

Abt went on to get a Master’s degree in Forest and Wood Sciences, work as an economist on the Beaverhead National Forest, get her PhD, and join the Economics and Policy Unit in RTP — where she has served for more than 20 years.

What does Karen Abt like best about working as a research scientist? “I get to ask interesting questions, or I am asked to answer interesting questions — because all questions are interesting — and then I get to do the research and try to answer them,” says Abt.

Visit Women in Science to learn more about Abt’s current research projects. How did she get interested in wood energy? What advice would she offer to scientists starting careers in forest economics?

For more information, email Jennifer Moore Myers at jennifer.mooremyers@usda.gov.

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