What is your Job description? I’m a Ph.D. student
What do you study now? I am studying the effects of exotic plant invasion on forest dynamics in Wisconsin and Hawai’i. Humans have been moving plants around the world for all of human history and we continue to move more and more plants today. In many parts of the world, especially islands, the abundance of these exotic plants is so overwhelming that native plants have been entirely excluded. This process is creating entirely new ecosystems, with plants that have never co-existed before. I’m interested in how nutrient and carbon turnover changes when new ecosystems are created. For instance, in temperate forests in Wisconsin, new exotic ecosystems may not be able to store as much carbon as native ecosystems. If the movement of exotic species continues to grow, carbon storage in Wisconsin might decline, which would mean that more carbon would remain in the atmosphere where it causes global warming. Yikes!
What’s the best thing about your job? I get to work in some of the most exciting places on Earth. I’ve worked in Panama, Costa Rica, Hawai’i, also in dozens of temperate forests in the Midwest and Eastern US. I had the enormous opportunity to work at a Free Air CO2 Enrichment study at the Duke Forest in North Carolina, and I’ve visited similar studies in Minnesota and Wisconsin. These experiments add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to try and see how forests will behave in 50 or 100 years as humans continue to alter global climate. The absolute best thing, though, is that I get to work outside. A lot of those days don’t even feel like work.
What is the worst thing about your job? Science can be very competitive at times, and a lot of scientists are competitive all the time. Sometimes you can feel like you need to work every minute of the day just to keep up. Ultimately, though, I think most students and scientists work so hard because they just enjoy working. They enjoy discovery, which is what science is really about. So, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, work hard, and you’ll remember that every step you take is toward a new discovery.
What inspired you to first study science? When I was a kid my parents got my Brother and I, each, placemats. My Brother’s was the Solar System and mine was the Periodic Table of Elements. I didn’t end up in chemistry, but I was certainly interested. To this day I am incredibly interested in space exploration, and even though I work in forest ecology, I read books about space all the time. Learning about science was really fun when I was a kid, and it’s even more fun now. A placemat wasn’t the only thing—I watched the Discovery Channel all the time, and I was particularly motivated by increasing awareness of environmental challenges like deforestation and global warming.
What do you do in a typical day? I have two kinds of days: field days and office days. In the office, I do what a lot of people do. I read reports and articles, analyze data that I or others have collected, and write up results or synthesize material to try and draw conclusions. I do almost all of this in front of a computer. When I’m working in the field, I’m usually out all day, rain or shine, measuring characteristics of forest ecosystems. Sometimes I’m doing as simple a thing as measuring the size of trees. Other times I’m digging up soil and measuring pH or texture, or measuring the amount of light that penetrates the forest canopy. My favorite thing to do is scouting for new research sites. I head out into the forest, and just walk around for hours looking at plants and soils.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist? Start doing research right away. There are so many opportunities to get involved in research. Talking to your teachers and advisors is the best way to find out what’s going on. Don’t let anyone slow you down. The people at the top of the scientific world respect ambition and drive. They want to help people that are interested and motivated. Once you start to get involved in research you’ll be able to explore your interests more clearly. Finding out what you want to do doesn’t require any soul searching. Try things, move on when you find something you don’t want to do, and soon you find something you feel you could do forever. Then all you have to do is do it!