By Kera Flynn
While graduate student Joshua Castle may have taken a non-traditional route to pursue his education, he’s now living out his passions studying wildlife biology and working for EKU’s Taylor Fork Ecological Area.
“When Josh stopped by my office to inquire about working at Taylor Fork, it was obvious that he was on a mission,” said Dr. David Brown, EKU professor of biological science. “I didn’t know the backstory at the time, but I could tell he was fiercely determined to start something new.”
Castle “grew up poor,” in Paintsville, Kentucky, where his mom worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. “We weren’t destitute, but certainly struggled at times,” Castle said.
After high school, Castle began working various jobs himself, including painter, construction worker and retail associate, then became a low-voltage electronics technician for almost a decade. After his mom passed away from cancer when he was 30 years old, he knew he wanted to change the trajectory of his own life and was “welcomed with open arms,” at EKU.
Brown said, “The experience of being a student in the sciences has been cathartic for Josh. “He picked himself up by the bootstraps to be among the most disciplined and hardest working students in the program.”
Castle received his bachelor of science in wildlife management last year and is currently pursuing a master’s in biological sciences at EKU while working as a graduate assistant (GA) under the supervision of Brown. In addition to teaching undergraduate biology labs, the position allows him to share his love of hands-on learning and the outdoors with others at Taylor Fork Ecological Area.
“It’s a pursuit of happiness,” Castle said. “I love being outdoors. As a kid, I spent my time hiking, camping and fishing. I live and breathe this stuff, and now, I get paid to do it.”
Taylor Fork Ecological Area is a field station administered by EKU’s Division of Natural Areas. It comprises 60 acres near EKU’s main campus in Richmond. The land was formerly used as pasture and has since been developed as a site for learning, research and restoration.
Castle and his team have recently managed a field to remove fescue and planted native grasses and other pollinator-friendly plants. They are also working on expanding the trail system to connect the EKU Challenge Course to Taylor Fork.
Castle’s position involves land management, invasive species management, maintaining the public-use area and planning and coordinating the nature exploration series.
Outside of his Taylor Fork position, Castle conducts research about bald eagles in a collaborative project with Brown; Kelly Watson, EKU associate professor of physics, geosciences and astronomy; EKU graduate Taylor Allen, former wildlife management major; and Kate Slankard, avian biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. Ever since Kentucky got its first bald eagle nest in 1986, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has been monitoring the nests to see how expansion can occur.
“Biologists started seeing a massive decline in the bald eagle population. I mean, it was nearly extinct in the lower 48 states,” said Castle. Their research project on the recovery and range expansion of bald eagles in Kentucky was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Through aerial survey data and a nesting-habitat suitability model, they discovered increasing populations, along with increased occurrences of bald eagles nesting in developed areas.
For Castle, every day is a new experience. “You might be conducting research and preparing an article for publication one day, and the next you’re at Taylor Fork running a chainsaw. It’s different, but you’re outside and enjoying the fresh air. We [Castle, Brown, and undergraduates Ethan Hovermale and Kenneth Mills] just finished field sampling. That has been a very rewarding experience. The work was brutal, but I got to spend the last eight weeks hiking and camping.”
After graduating with his master’s degree in Spring 2024, Castle wants a career that allows him to continue to work in the field and conduct research. He’s also interested in environmental consulting. Castle's time at Taylor Fork and in his GA position has helped him gain hands-on experience and communication skills for his future endeavors.
Reflecting on the path to achieving his career aspirations, he said, “My mom was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. Her memory inspires me to keep pushing myself. I know she would be proud of how far I’ve come.” Castle added, “I didn’t make it this far on my own. The biology faculty, especially Dr. Brown, have been there for me in and outside of the classroom. My success is a reflection of the dedication they have for their students.”
As the School of Opportunity and Employer of Choice, EKU offers a wide variety of student employment positions, providing students with valuable learning experiences beyond the classroom. GA positions, available for graduate students, can help set the pathway for future career opportunities as well as provide a sense of confidence for students to succeed in the workforce after graduation. Learn more about GA opportunities at go.eku.edu/assistantship.