Land & Environment

Testing the Waters: QCNR Valedictorian Austin Garner on Landing Academic Success

By Anais Barrientos |

Standing knee-deep in the glinting current of the Weber River with fly rod in hand, this year’s valedictorian from the Quinney College of Natural Resources felt a sudden tug on the line. Austin Garner wrestled a good-sized fish into his net and took what he thought to be a rainbow trout to show off to his uncle. What he actually managed to snag, he came to learn, was a ghost — a Bonneville cutthroat trout.

That species, once thought to no longer reside in that part of Utah’s waters, became a symbol for Garner as a teenager — something representing the exceptional ecosystems that Utah’s rivers support. Angling was his launch into science. During this and other outings, he said, conversations would float between anglers working the riverbank, on the historic terraces formed by Lake Bonneville and how the rivers were formed.

“It represented a piece of history I can’t touch anymore,” he said. “Interacting with cutthroat trout connected me to the long arc of natural history on the Wasatch Range.”

It was one experience that pushed him to learn more about rivers and spend time with them, he said.

Shortly after leaving the military, Garner was introduced to the possibility of fisheries management as a career when he bumped into a conservation officer one day while fishing. After a brief conversation about the different aspects of the job, Garner inquired about making fishing a career.

The place to do that, he was told, was the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

Initially Garner questioned if he would even be accepted into a bachelor's degree program. After his acceptance to Utah State University, Garner began to stretch and build his academic skills, and he found success.

Set to graduate with a degree in fisheries and aquatic sciences, Garner said that he didn’t expect to be valedictorian but is honored to hold the role. During his time as an undergraduate student he took advantage of the tight-knit community in the college and the experience and knowledge of the passionate researchers, he said. He worked in lab settings, collaborated with peers and faculty, delved into complex research topics, and got involved in clubs and leadership.

Garner remains passionate about Utah fisheries and spends time researching predation on June suckers in Utah Lake. He helped to create a model to predict predation by white bass on June sucker populations that was later expanded for application to all Utah Lake fish.

The model filled a gap in knowledge and earned Garner the undergraduate researcher of the year for 2023 in the college. The project is still progressing to build a stronger and more widely applicable model. His work has been presented at American Fisheries Society conferences and is on the way to being published.

“This research can be used to better inform management decisions across the state of Utah,” Garner said.

In addition to his academic achievements, Garner is a parent. He enjoys fishing with his son and sharing his appreciation for the local landscape. Although his undergraduate experience has been anything but easy, Garner says it is important to keep working toward what you want. Through parenthood, rigorous work schedules, intense class loads and highly involved research projects, Garner has kept his eyes on the prize, he said.

Garner is looking forward to continuing his education and has accepted a position as a graduate student working with Timothy Walsworth in the Department of Watershed Sciences. He hopes to gain additional professional experience and to work at shifting management strategies across the state toward a strong and specific focus on localized science, he said.


Anais Barrientos
Communication Specialist
S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources


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