BRATTLEBORO -- If she was ever invited to give a graduation keynote speech at her alma mater, Anna Chalfoun would tell the students to pursue their passions because you never know where they might lead.
"Look at me. I'm a wildlife ecologist who shook President Obama's hand."
On April 14, Chalfoun was one of three U.S. Geological Survey researchers who received the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which is considered the highest recognition granted by the United States government to scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers.
Chalfoun, who graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 1991, never thought that one day she would be standing in the same room as the president.
"Absolutely not. I still can't believe it."
She was recognized for her work in building an understanding of habitat "and her tireless efforts in training students in conservation-based science."
Chalfoun is an assistant unit leader with the USGS's Wyoming Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit and assistant professor at the University of Wyoming. Chalfoun integrates multi-scale research approaches, from small patches to the landscape, across taxa within ecosystems to understand the impacts of land change, and across broad scientific disciplinary areas.
"Anna is quickly becoming one of the experts on the ecology of the sage brush steppe and the various wildlife species that depend on this important habitat," stated Matthew Kauffman, leader of the USGS Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and associate professor at the University of Wyoming.
Chalfoun described conservation-based science as wildlife ecology that seeks to understand the relationship between wildlife species and their habitat and what happens when there are human modifications -- such as energy extraction -- to that habitat.
But when Chalfoun graduated in 1991, she had no idea this is where her life would take her.
"I didn't really consider becoming a scientist until I went to college. It was not on my radar."
She earned her Bachelor's degree at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., a Masters from the University of Missouri and her Ph.D. from the University of Montana.
"I fell in love with the West when I first went out there after college. I was thrilled to do my Ph.D. in Montana."
Chalfoun blamed her relocation to the Rocky Mountains on her curiosity and wanderlust.
"And I got a seasonal job doing endangered bird work with the Army Corps of Engineers the summer after graduating college."
Step by step, her education and career brought her to the point she is at now, being recognized by the president "For her brilliant contributions toward an understanding of habitat, the most critical element of species, landscape, and ecosystem management and for her tireless efforts to train students while imparting her enthusiasm for conservation-based science."
"One thing I would say to young girls is pay attention to your curiosities and know you can do anything that you want to do," said Chalfoun. "Young girls and women tend to lack the confidence that boys do, but you just need to get past that."
They also need to challenge themselves and get out of their comfort zones, even if only temporarily, she said.
"It's how you learn and grow and gain confidence. You have to work hard, but you want to find things that you are passionate about, so the work becomes something that is worthwhile, enjoyable and pays off."
Chalfoun, who no longer has family in Brattleboro, said she would like to return for a visit soon, if just to see the changes and check in with old friends.
Each year, 10 federal departments and agencies join together to nominate outstanding scientists and engineers whose discoveries and advancements expand the horizons of science and technology, contribute to their agencies' missions, and benefit America's economy and the health and safety of the nation's people.
The awards, established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.
"The impressive achievements of these early-stage scientists and engineers are promising indicators of even greater successes ahead," President Obama said in a White House press release announcing the awardees. "We are grateful for their commitment to generating the scientific and technical advancements that will ensure America's global leadership for many years to come."
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.