University of Connecticut
And - Research Professor, University of the Sunshine Coast
Never let others decide what you are or are not capable of.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
For 40 years I have studied tropical forest ecology, focusing on tree growth, survival, and physiology. For the past 25 years my research focused on how tropical forests regrow after they have been cut down and converted to agriculture, mostly for cattle pastures. This work has involved annual censuses of trees, saplings, and seedlings in a set of plots that were initially 12-25 years old after pastures were no longer used. My research on forest regeneration has become important in understanding how we can restore tropical forests based on recognizing their potential to recover with little or no assistance. Now I collaborate with many groups in research on the importance of forest restoration for reducing climate change and for protecting species of plants and animals from extinction. I also work to develop tools for planning restoration in ways that provide benefits for people and the environment.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?
As long as I can remember I had an affinity for nature and for studying biology. I loved being outdoors and felt at home in nature. In high school I became aware of environmental problems and gravitated toward studying ecology in college. I had my first exposure to the tropics during my second year of college on a semester-long field study program in Costa Rica. I loved field work and doing independent research and learning from other people. The exuberance of the tropics captivated me. This experience was pivotal for me and I returned to the tropics to do my doctoral research on understory palms, my post-doctoral research, and then the research projects I initiated as a faculty member. And I am still not finished, as there are many places I still want to visit. I am fascinated by the study of natural systems and how they function, but also how social and natural systems interact. Studying forest regrowth has been the perfect focus, as it provides a way to understand how the process of recovery is influenced both positively and negatively by human activities.
HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?
There were three main roadblocks that I faced, but fortunately I was able to overcome them. One big one was getting funding to do research and to purchase needed equipment, pay for assistance, and cover travel expenses. I was fortunate to get many grants for my work, but had some lapses in funding that threatened the progression of my work. It took lots of perseverance and many multiple grant applications to get through it. A second one was being able to visit my field sites regularly given my teaching and other university responsibilities. This required having funding to hire a project manager as well as training local technicians who could carry out the work. Team-teaching for some semesters also allowed me to travel for fieldwork and other professional activities. Third, being married and raising children is challenging while doing fieldwork and is often a huge barrier for women. I was very fortunate to travel to Costa Rica with my husband, who was also doing research in the same field station, and we were able to bring our children as babies, kids, and teenagers. So doing research in Costa Rica became a family activity. Later, I was able to travel on my own as needed. It is really important to provide opportunities for families and for women with children to continue doing their research, as this benefits everybody.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"
When I was younger, I had no idea that people would doubt my abilities and dedication to scientific research because I was a woman. But it happened. I never let it hold me back and figured that I could prove myself by doing good work and making a difference for students and for collaborators. This strategy paid off. I also questioned how it would be possible to “do it all”. There were times I felt very discouraged, particularly when grant applications were rejected for no good reason. But each time I submitted again and eventually got the funding to do what I wanted to do. This path takes a lot of personal strength and belief in yourself. I have always had a lot of drive, so I’m sure this made a big difference in getting through rough moments. It is also important to choose collaborators and students carefully. They often become life partners and go through the journey with you. This is a special aspect of doing research that is under emphasized. We cannot do this work by ourselves. We need supportive colleagues who bring strengths and ideas to the collaboration. Science isn’t about what we do as individuals, but what we accomplish as society and community.
WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?
Studying natural systems provides insights into how the complexity and interdependence of components create organization. This is a metaphor for life and for how we can all work to make the world a better place for all. I love studying how forests recover, as this knowledge has many applications and is simply inspirational to me. I feel like the forest already "knows" these secrets and our job as scientists is to learn them from the forest. It is humbling and helps to place our knowledge within the context of how the world functions.
BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?
Believe in yourself and never give up, even when it seems like you are not up to the task. Never let others decide what you are or are not capable of. Being a good scientist requires humility and respect for others, but also requires that you give yourself every opportunity you can find to learn and advance professionally.
I am inspired by strong women who follow their dreams and passions, like Jane Goodall. I admire scientists who are humble and who nurture students and colleagues. I admire people who are patient with students and colleagues and who work to bring out the best in others.