Best Thesis Award: Brian Mason’s passion for natural resources, fisheries work continues to grow


UNK Communications

What are the qualities of a good student researcher?

Multiple things, says Brian Mason.

“Having a passion for the work you do is a key component to succeeding. While in graduate school, your project often becomes a dominating element of your life. If you have little interest in the topic, your research will likely get neglected.

“Students who are passionate – dare I say obsessive – about the topics they are studying will have a better time maintaining momentum throughout their graduate career,” Mason says.

Being comfortable asking questions is also a good attribute for student researchers, he says.

“Projects and procedures in the lab are likely new to many students conducting research. Asking questions – and getting straightforward guidance from advisers – can be a cornerstone for a successful project.”

Mason, who graduated from UNK in May 2021 with a master’s degree in biology, is the winner of the university’s 2021 Best Thesis Award.

Working under biology professor Melissa Wuellner, his research focused on sediment berms that developed in the mouths of several coves at Harlan County Reservoir near Alma. The berms can isolate coves from the main reservoir if the berm height is greater than the reservoir’s water elevation. As a result, the disconnection of coves may impact water quality, zooplankton and fish within the isolated reservoir habitats.

Mason’s study examined differences in water quality parameters, zooplankton communities and fish assemblages between disconnected coves, connected coves and the main reservoir.

“Disconnected coves overall had reduced water quality (lower dissolved oxygen, higher temperatures and reduced water clarity) compared to connected coves and the main reservoir, and their biological communities had higher densities of zooplankton taxa and fish species tolerant of those conditions,” he said. “Keep in mind that these habitats all originate from a single source, the main reservoir, showing that these habitats are highly complex and incredibly dynamic.”

After graduating from UNK, Mason worked several seasonal jobs as a creel clerk, stream fisheries technician and post-spawn salmon carcass surveyor. This spring, he joined the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, where he works as a post-master’s research associate in the lab’s waterpower science systems engineering division.

“I have been involved with several acoustic telemetry and radio telemetry studies being conducted in the region, tracking various fish species as they migrate throughout river systems and examining their passage through dams, hydropower facilities, fish passage structures,” he said.

How did you make the decision to enter this profession?
I was always drawn to natural resources, but the biggest influence that made me really desire to pursue a profession in fisheries was a summer internship I had with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Aside from giving me lots of valuable experience in boat operations, sampling techniques and data management, it showed me how enjoyable and rewarding this work could be.

Talk about your upbringing. Did anything in your childhood lead you down this career path?
I am originally from the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, where I grew up on my family’s small cattle farm. I was surrounded by numerous lakes and rivers and exposed to water resources since birth. During my undergraduate career, I was uncertain what major to take up. However, I was always drawn to the natural resource classes. After switching majors several times, yet having enough credits to minor in wildlife biology, it became clear that natural resources was the path to go down. My hometown and undergraduate university, Bemidji State, was also amazing for starting a career in natural resources – being on the shoreline of beautiful Lake Bemidji and the Mississippi River and surrounded by abundant natural areas.

Describe a perfect day in the field researching:
Every day in the field is a win for me! One of the best aspects of working in natural resources is the ability to work outdoors in the field and be able to handle and observe living things in their natural habitats. Field work definitely comes with its challenges at times, and some days are certainly better than others, but the feeling you get when hauling in a full seine of fish, seeing a new species for the first time or simply just being on the water can be euphoric. Additionally, co-workers and technicians in this field are great company as they often share a similar mindset themselves. They make working in a team setting extremely enjoyable and downright fun.

How do you measure success as a researcher?
The number of publications and prestige of a journal are often noted as the ultimate benchmarks of success in the scientific community. However, I think these variables can be a bit overhyped. Although publishing data and building on the community of knowledge is very important, much of the research conducted within the scientific community and world of fisheries management only gets published in a limited capacity as agency reports, master’s or doctoral theses and journal notes, or it simply does not get published at all. … If the work that is being conducted is done so with integrity, brings engagement to the research topic and is used to better the field, then I consider it successful.

Why were you attracted to this research topic? What motivated you?
Before I started my graduate career at UNK, I took a year off and was working temporary natural resources jobs wherever I could find them. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn about natural resource management firsthand and gain experience in the field. During this time, however, I observed many people without a higher degree were very limited in the jobs and advancements they could realistically achieve. Because my passion for natural resources and fisheries work had only grown while being a temporary worker in the field, I knew graduate school would likely be necessary to continue in the career path. The position at UNK on Harlan County Reservoir was also a great fit. It offered a challenging project focusing on field work I was familiar with from my previous work experience, but in a new area with habitats and fish species novel to me.

What stands out about UNK’s research programs and/or your experience in Kearney?
Kearney’s atmosphere is definitely a major factor in my success as a graduate student at UNK. Although Kearney is a moderate size, the community is very close-knit and charming. There is a diverse array of activities such as the Archway Monument, an active downtown and public land nearby for hunting and fishing. The Great Plains are an intriguing and unique part of the country to work and live in, and they hold some incredible natural resources often overlooked.

In addition, the research facilities and equipment provided at UNK, and partnering agencies such as Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, was great. That was a huge help to the research I and other grad students were conducting. Furthermore, my graduate program did a fantastic job at providing networking opportunities via the many state and federal agencies I was working with and offering numerous conferences where I presented my research.

What is your advice for future or current graduate students?
Going to grad school is a big decision that has potential to impact your life in huge ways. Although it will likely be difficult, it does have its upsides and can potentially help you further your career in huge ways. Be an advocate for yourself. Open and honest communication between you and your advisers and department staff is key for succeeding in your graduate career. Not only does this allow you to increase camaraderie, but it allows you to bring up problems or challenges you may have. This is extremely important. If your problems are unheard, they are likely to go unresolved.


Hometown: Bemidji, Minnesota; Graduated from Bemidji High School, 2013.
Education: Bachelor of Science in wildlife biology with minors in geographic information system and wetland ecology, Bemidji State University, 2017; Master of Science in biology, University of Nebraska at Kearney, 2021.
Hobbies and interests: Hiking, skiing and snowboarding, canoeing, mountain biking, camping, traveling, fishing, hunting and reading.
Current employment: Post-master’s research associate, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Waterpower Science Systems Engineering Department in Richland, Washington.
Recognition: Winner of UNK’s 2021 Best Thesis Award.
Thesis title: “Comparison of Abiotic and Biotic Factors Between Coves of Varying Connection to Harlan County Reservoir, Nebraska.”
Area of research/specialization: Sediment berms of various heights have developed in the mouths of several coves within Harlan County Reservoir due to a combination of sediment deposition and lateral drift of eroded sediments. These berms can isolate coves from the main reservoir if the berm height is greater than the water elevation of the reservoir. Disconnection of coves may impact water quality, zooplankton and fish within the isolated reservoir habitats. Mason’s study examines differences in water quality parameters, zooplankton communities and fish assemblages between disconnected coves, connected coves and the main reservoir.