Lincoln, Neb. —“The UNL Alumni Master award is the most significant recognition in my career, and I honestly didn’t see myself coming this far…”
Dr. Clayton K. Nielsen is 30 months from retirement after an illustrious career as a teacher and professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation in the Forestry Program and Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, Southern Illinois University. However, he had his bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
This year, along with eight others, he joined an elite group of about 400 professionals throughout the history of UNL who have been recognized and honored with the title of “Alumni Master”. The Alumni Master award is a program sponsored by the Nebraska Alumni Association, the Student’s Alumni Association, and the Chancellor’s Office for their leadership, and stellar contribution to academia and society. The Alumni Masters award which was instituted in 1964 is highly competitive and the winners are picked after some rigorous process that lasts several months.
Though highly decorated, the UNL alumnus didn’t always see himself become so accomplished that TIME Magazine, National Geographic magazine, BBC and several others would interview him for his groundbreaking research, because he had his own share of challenges at the very start while he was an undergraduate at UNL.
Clay grew up in a religious home. As a boy, he learnt to be disciplined, and maintained a high moral ethic. This reflected in his academics and social conduct.
“Mine was a religious home and my parents, who are still alive today, made sure we adhered to a strict moral lifestyle. So, I can hardly point to lengthy periods in my early days when I wasn’t overly focused on academics or work on the farm.
“Though I wouldn’t say I had longed to become an engineer, but I got admitted into UNL to study engineering. There was hardly any way to find out what options I had as there was no internet back then. Upon being admitted, I managed to stay afloat until I discovered biology as a course on East campus. It was then I switched majors.”
Being raised on a farm, Clay was used to fishing, farming, hiking, and hunting. So, it aligned with his passion to pursue a course in wildlife ecology and habitat management.
“As a teenager I was a hunter, a fisherman, and loved traveling. I grew up on a farm and my interest was basically in being outdoors.
“However, I began to enjoy research halfway into my master's program. I decided to pursue a master's degree at the State University of New York because I thought it would avail me better opportunities in life. It was the same belief that led me into a doctoral degree in zoology at the Southern Illinois University where I focused on habitat protection and wildlife management. I began research on wildlife ecology and of mammalian wildlife.”
Dr. Nielsen has been involved in tons of research work, completing and publishing over 250 scholarly works. There were times he churned out 15 papers in a single year while overseeing more than 10 graduate students, simultaneously.
From adaptability of mammalian wildlife due to changing anthropogenic influence on habitats to the vulnerability of threatened species, and the rebound of some near-extinct wild cats, Dr. Nielsen’s research covered broad categories of interest.
“I have carried out several research projects and published about 250 papers. I'm very interested in game management, and my research focus is largely on the management of wildlife populations for consumptive use or protection, depending on the species,” he said.
“Some of my work includes endangered species, particularly wild cats. I have researched endangered tigers in India, declining population of leopards, and jaguar. Today, there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild.
“It would be rewarding for researchers to carry out more study on threatened species, as well as invasive species. That's going to be a niche area for a while. However, some research have proven that a couple of threatened species are coming back; the American bison is an example,” Dr. Nielsen noted.
Pointing to the decline of national habitat due to anthropogenic causes, the wildlife professor believes that the natural home for wildlife is becoming more fragmented due to human activity. He sees a growing need for understanding in this area and advocates that students and researchers focus on wildlife populations and wildlife habitats.
Also alluding to the growth of human population particularly in the southern hemisphere, and the effect on natural habitat, Dr. Nielsen said some of the world’s most pristine environment are in poor regions. “Due to poor economies, some of these indigenous families make their livelihood by hunting down threatened wildlife. I believe the developed world can reach a compromise in this regard, instead of maintaining an air of aloofness in approaching a complex issue like that. There’s always some form of support we can give to keep the natural habitat in these regions,” he quipped.
Climate change has effect on wildlife and natural habitat. Published studies have shown a range of severity in different parts of the world. Dr. Nielsen acknowledged the impacts of climate change on natural habitat and wildlife. He however explained that he had done very little research on the effect climate change has on habitat; however, he believes conservationists could use scarce resources to handle predictions by planning accordingly on the short-term. For instance, “an estimation of future forest cover in say 50 years is some information to plan with. While we can't reverse the damages, we can ameliorate the effects on wildlife.”
An insatiable thirst for research grants:
With nothing less than 14 million US dollars in grants to his name on behalf of SIU, Dr. Nielsen shared his strategy on winning grants. He attests to the fact that anyone could be competitive to win grants but the volume rests more on adding social skills to the expected technical competence.
“I won more grants because of the social connections which I built over time. One needs to develop good people skills to elicit positive relationships. Back then, I took time to identify existing and potential sources of funding support at SIU. I was privileged to meet some of these organizations. So, I grew the relationship and kept expanding my network. Not all connections translated to grants, but the more sources I had, the better my chances.
“Secondly, I was hardly satisfied with any level of grant I got because I was always getting set to reach for the next one. You wouldn’t be wrong to say I had insatiable thirst for research grants. I just kept pushing.
Recognitions and awards:
Despite the numerous awards to his name, what gratifies Dr. Nielsen was none of the visible recognitions. He prides himself in the impact he creates in his graduate students and knowing that they fared well long after their programs. He noted that some are better placed than himself as they held privileged positions within and outside the academic communities in different parts of the world. He believes being part of their lives was a privilege and a reason to be fulfilled.
“Looking back at my entire career, I consider the experience of sharing life with my graduate students as worth being treasured. I rank this above any grant or recognition I have received. Even more satisfying is getting to know that they’re faring well long after graduating.
“Some saw me as an older brother at the time I just became a professor. I have kept in touch with some of them via emails. As I got older, some incoming graduate students saw me as a father and that metamorphosed into some sort of bond akin to having biological children,” the professor added.
Regarding awards for his work, Dr. Nielsen prizes the UNL Alumni Master award above others he had bagged. In his words: “the UNL Alumni Master award is the most significant recognition in my career, and I honestly didn’t see myself coming this far. I do not take it for granted. Right here at UNL is where the journey into wildlife ecology began and I’m back here to be honored in this fashion. So, it is a big one for me.”
Asked if any other recognition came close, he noted that the 2014 Outstanding Scholar Award in the College of Agricultural Sciences at SIU ranked second.
Everything good comes at a cost:
There's a cost for every achievement. As Dr. Nielsen got drawn into his career, he noticed corresponding progress until he slowly became a workaholic. His passion to turn in papers took over him. He got tenured. Then he pursued grants and continued to stack up the number of graduate students under his supervision. While doing these, he kept pace with teaching classes, carrying out new research, and pursuing outreaches.
Being social for Dr. Nielsen meant forging connections towards winning grants. He inadvertently sacrificed invaluable relationships to achieve these targets.
“I have been burnt out, and today I'm probably a recovering workaholic. I used to have 15 graduate students at a time. I sometimes publish 15 papers in a year. But these came at a cost. I'm divorced, and it's largely because of an unbalanced pursuit of excellence at work. That was a wake-up call for me.
“So, I tell younger faculty members and graduate students, who care to listen, ‘Do not to aspire to achieve the things I had accomplished’. My 80-page curriculum vitae came at a huge cost. Whenever I get the chance to converse with my students, I ask about their work-life balance and admonish them not to sacrifice everything on the altar of academic pursuits.”
A professor’s general guide for students:
“I believe the quality of education I received here at UNL helped in shaping the sort of foundation upon which I built my entire career. So, without hesitation, I’ll advise every student to take their studies seriously as these are the essential building blocks for a successful future. I have proven this to be the case with my own experience,” Dr. Nielsen said.
Stressing the importance of experience to career success, Dr. Nielsen said there’s always a way students can garner experience before graduation, and that’s by volunteering. Without the obligation of financial remuneration, individuals and organizations would be happy to offer students room to volunteer in their establishments. It’s a win-win scenario. Though he identified major challenges that easily rock the dreams of graduate students, he explained that he managed to combat these obstacles by increasing his weekly study hours.
“By volunteering in different fields of natural resources and assisting professionals on various projects, students could easily get ahead in their fields once they graduate.
“Graduate students are generally wary of writing and data analysis. For me, I had to sacrifice 20 to 30 hours weekly just to improve. I had friends who were quite outstanding with numbers. It didn’t come naturally for me, and I know my strength. So, I studied hard to improve my proficiency with numbers.
“It’s vital I mention that networking and knowing people are just as important as a student’s GPA and experience. I was heavy on that until I became a research professor over the last 20 years. That shifted my focus to a different kind of connection,” he said.
Dr. Clay Nielsen has promised to retire from his regular role at SIU at the age of 54, and that’s 30 months from now. He’s already begun the countdown and seems to have everything well laid out for post-retirement activities. He plans to travel the world but keep in touch with the ivory tower in some way.
“Now, I’m retiring in 30 months. In retirement, I see myself doing a lot of traveling, fishing, hunting, and hiking. I most likely would take up a part-time role where I help students with their research. I have a couple of them presently and I’m winding down on my overall schedules in that respect.
“I want to wake up in my home somewhere in the woods and sit on the patio just staring at nature. I’m sure you would catch me reading novels like fiction, adventure, and crime but not science. Presently I read occasionally, like a book weekly. And when I’m not doing that, I probably would just want to brew beer with a good friend of mine. I’m not big on sports, but I love music and play a few instruments. Perhaps, I would revisit that.”