Honoured Alum Dr. Carl Schwarz a leading researcher in ecological statistics

Dr. Carl James Schwarz, Faculty of Science 2020 Honoured Alumni Award Fellow of the American Statistical Association

Never let it be said that continuing education is a waste of time. If it wasn’t for his decision to take an evening course in Statistics, Dr. Carl Schwarz (the 2020 Department of Statistics Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni) might never have gone on to become a leading researcher in ecological statistics. Schwarz says it was after he’d graduated from the U of M with his MSc in Computing Science and went to work for Ontario Hydro that he found himself in the stats course, marveling at how interesting it was.

“I knew something of how to do simulations with computers, so I went home and tried it out, and it worked. So I said ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do here. This is really neat, you can extract information from relatively small samples from populations and get good information. It’s just fascinating, the way you can do that.’”

With that, a statistician was born. Schwarz went on to attend the University of Waterloo, obtaining his second MSc in Mathematics and Statistics. He returned to the UM to complete a PhD in Statistics under the supervision of Dr. Neil Arnason, of whom Schwarz has only positive things to say:

“I have to give kudos to [Dr. Arnason] who was in Computing Science at the same time. He also has a very interesting background. He’s more of an ecologist than a computer scientist. He and I hit it off very well. He was my supervisor when I came back. He’s interested in dealing with ecology, using computing systems to study systems and ecology.”

Schwarz settled in at UM, becoming a faculty member in the Department of Statistics. In 1990, he was awarded the Dr. & Mrs. H. Saunderson award for excellence in teaching from the UM, one of several teaching awards he received during his career.

During one of his sabbaticals, he spent six months working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. It was at that point that he and his wife Lois decided to move to the West coast.

Schwarz quickly found a job teaching at Simon Fraser University, whose joint Statistics and Mathematics department was on the verge of being split in two in order to make administration more manageable. Schwarz was named Chair of the newly created Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science, a position for which he’d been prepared by his involvement with the SFU Faculty Association and its equivalent at the UM. He says his previous experience in dealing with administrators gave him confidence in his new role.

As an ecological statistician, Schwarz developed methods to study the demographics of wild animal populations. His main research area was the design and analysis of capture-recapture studies. These studies provide population information through the repeated capture of marked individuals. These types of studies are commonly used in wildlife research when a complete population census is impractical. They supply information about changes in population size; vital rates, including birth and death rates; animal movements in space; and the factors that affect these processes.

“The capture/recapture methodology is part of a larger interest I have in statistical ecology. I’m very mercenary. The methods I developed aren’t specific to a particular type of animal. They can be used from anything, from mosquitoes up to elephants. You can also use it, for example, with killer whales. Here on the West coast, they’re interested in killer whale numbers. You don’t physically capture those animals. You have different spotting patterns on them, so you can tell the individual animal by, for example, nicks on its’ fins, where the fin is flipped over, or the splotches on the animal.“

“So as long as you can individually identify animals, we still call it capture/recapture, even though you physically never handle them. I’ve done work on killer whales, dolphins, elephants, moose, deer, lots of fish, insects. The stuff I do is in developing the methodology for analysis, so it’s not specific to a particular animal.”

Retired from SFU since December 2018, Schwarz is currently involved in a project with the United Nations, which wants to develop an improved method for analyzing rates of poaching. As part of M.I.K.E. (Monitoring Intentionally Killed Elephants) Schwarz is doing just that. He’s recently returned from a Kenyan safari, which allowed him to see elephants in their natural habitat. Schwarz says field work helps him to get a true picture of the creatures behind his calculations. He also runs his own consulting firm, through which he offers short courses on statistical methods. He’s given these courses over 100 times in total to various groups from B.C. to Newfoundland, as well as in the U.S.

Schwarz’s advice to budding statistics students? Combine it with something you like.

“If you like dealing with poverty issues, there’s lots of NGO’s that need help in measuring poverty and trying to design programs to alleviate poverty. There are many environmental issues and health issues that require quantitative analyses. Pair up statistics with something you love. There are lots of people who are very good technically at statistics, but don’t have much information about a particular subject area. There’s lots of people who know lots about a particular subject area but are lacking quantitative skills. If you fit between the two of those, you’ll be a very valuable commodity.”

By Jo Davies

Careers in Science Panel and Roundtable
2020 Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni Awards

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 30, 2020
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 5:00 pm

The event is an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to learn about careers in Science while honouring exceptional alumni and celebrating their achievements.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend.

For more information please click here.

Jan 20, 2020

Join our Newsletter

Stay in touch with the Faculty of Science and keep up to date with all the news and events that will matter to you throughout your time in the Faculty.