Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Leadership Institute presented alumnus Douglas J. Austen with the Gerald H. Cross Alumni Leadership Award.

Austen, executive director of the American Fisheries Society, earned his master’s degree in fish and wildlife conservation from Virginia Tech in 1984. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from South Dakota State University and a doctorate in animal ecology from Iowa State University.

Austen discovered a love of fishing as a child and pointed to family vacations spent on lakes or with access to nearby trout streams as the start of his career in fisheries. A native of suburban Chicago, Austen had to search to find a fisheries program, eventually leading him to South Dakota State University.

During his time as a graduate student at Virginia Tech, Austen worked closely with Professor Donald Orth on a project on the New River addressing smallmouth bass and helped to create computer programs to generate population estimates for use in the classroom. He spoke fondly the close-knit learning community fostered by the college. “All of the graduate students helped one another on whatever research they were doing at the time.”

While working with Orth, Austen became involved with the American Fisheries Society, attending professional conferences and making connections that would ultimately lead to a position with the Illinois National History Survey. “They needed someone who could do computer programing and also knew about fish,” he recalled.

Austen went on to serve as a fisheries researcher with the Illinois Department of Conservation and spent six years as the director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. In 2010, he became the national coordinator of the Landscape Conservation Cooperative with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he served until his appointment as executive director of the American Fisheries Society in 2013.

Austen now works with staff and partners to ensure that fisheries science is used in policy development and legislation. He says the best part of his current position is the opportunity to work directly with the society’s members. “I get to help talented people flourish in their careers.”

On receiving the Gerald H. Cross Alumni Leadership Award, Austen noted, “I was surprised. There are so many great people that come out of Virginia Tech. To be counted among them is really an honor.”

Professor Emeritus Gerald H. Cross served as the head of what was then called the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences from 1976 to 1989. He significantly built up the department during his tenure, increasing the number of faculty members three-fold.

“Dr. Cross recognized early on that the strong technical skills that helped natural resource professionals move up in their organizations must be accompanied by leadership skills if they were to succeed at higher levels,” said Associate Professor Steve McMullin, who heads the college’s Leadership Institute, a two-semester program for select undergraduate students.

Cross created a continuing education program focusing on leadership development for Forest Service professionals. Approximately 1,000 natural resource professionals have participated in the program since 1988. The leadership that Cross demonstrated inspired the creation of his namesake award, whose recipients are recognized for their dedication and outstanding achievements in leading others.

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