An ecologist goes home: Galapagos Preview

“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper, and I suppose that if gifted with a full quiver, (s)he also writes like a journalist.” E.O. Wilson

One of the hats I wear is that of a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State. I earned my Ph.D. in forestry from State and love teaching there. Although I’m trained as a forest ecologist, most of my teaching is in professional development. My career has taken many twists and turns and I have lots to say about it, some of which helps students. It’s rewarding and fun.

But I miss ecology and teaching science, which is why I continue to teach field classes at the NC Botanical Garden and elsewhere. When a long-time professor retired and his study abroad class to the Galapagos was left open, I immediately emailed my department head to tell him that he needed a co-instructor and that I would be great for the job. Sometimes you have to be direct. So I was.

I subscribed to World before polar bears were listed as threatened.

I’ve wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for a very long time. When I was a kid, I eagerly awaited my monthly National Geographic World magazine. My dream was to travel the world and write for National Geographic. I was 12 or 13 when I entered an essay contest sponsored by World. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but you could choose one of a dozen destinations to write about, and the grand prize was a trip to your destination. I wanted it enough to remember that the kid who won wrote about ancient Egypt using a clever newspaper layout and style. I wrote about the Galapagos. I was already an ecologist in the making, though I didn’t discover it as a field of study until my junior year of college.

Ecologists want to understand how plants and animals respond to and within their environments. Why ecology? First, I’m insatiably curious, a skeptic, and I find asking questions infinitely more interesting than knowing the answers. Second, I’m a big-picture person who sometimes struggles with details. Working like a bookkeeper is the hardest part of the scientist’s triangle for me. Third, the natural world never ceases to amaze me, whether it is my back yard or the Galapagos Islands. The mysteries are what make it so compelling.

Ecology asks the big-picture questions that continually inspire me. While the concepts are intuitive, ecology demands that you draw together all the knowledge you have to explain something you’re witnessing in nature.

It’s that intuitiveness about ecology that makes it so much fun to share with others. There’s nothing like an octopus video to get everyone in the room squealing–indeed, this happened two weeks ago in Science Olympiad, with the kids AND the parents. Yet, science is undergoing a crisis because of our inability to communicate (a future post and something I’ve ranted about for years). I’m trained as a scientist, but my ability to communicate has landed me most of my opportunities.

The complexity of nature and ecology bogs people down. We seek the simplest explanation, which is not always the best or most complete one. However, I find that stories and tidbits of information get us all thinking about bigger ideas. When I posted a compelling photograph of the Table Rock fire and a short explanation about fire ecology on Facebook, I received many positive comments from friends of all ages and backgrounds, that they had learned something new and interesting.

Following the Table Mountain fire in Linville Gorge. The photos look scary (and beautiful), but the montane pine forest and woodland that rims the gorge is adapted for stand-replacing fires like this one. I’ve been up here several times in the last few years and from an ecological perspective, this fire is just what Linville Gorge desperately needs for species like Table Mountain and pitch pine and rare species like Greenland sandwort and mountain golden heather. In fact, the USFS has a proposal on the table to use prescribed fire in Linville Gorge for this very reason. How this fire plays out–both from a PR perspective as well as ecologically–is going to dictate this conversation, and future conversations, on burning in this wilderness area. I hope that it burns and that the public will see the benefits. 

To that end, I’m planning a similar exercise, one I’ve used over the years in the classroom and for fun, with friends. While in the Galapagos, I hope to post a daily photo with a caption–a great photo and a fun fact that will pique your curiosity, but one that leads you to bigger ideas and questions. I’m going where Charles Darwin noted astonishing differences in species between islands, which gave rise to his theory of evolution. The theory of evolution and understanding where species come from underpins ecology as a science. Wow!

Who is it for? Everyone: my NC State students, my colleagues, my family, my kids, my Science Olympiad team, and my friends. Stay tuned!

My students have also started a website, where they plan to post a daily blog, field guide, and video: We’re looking forward to sharing what we’re leaning. Join us on our adventure!


One thought on “An ecologist goes home: Galapagos Preview

  1. Hello there! This post could not be written
    much better! Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept preaching about this. I most certainly will forward this article to him.

    Pretty sure he will have a very good read. Thank you for sharing!

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