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Wisconsin Ecology: New cohort carries on century-old tradition

August 30, 2012

From sloth populations in Costa Rica to fish migrating along Southeast Asia's Mekong River to changing vegetation in the Pacific Northwest, ecology is everywhere.

Steve Carpenter

Yet for many of the brightest minds in the field, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the base camp from which to study some of the world's greatest conservation challenges.

"If you want to build a career in ecology, Wisconsin is the place to do it," says Steve Carpenter, director of the UW-Madison Center for Limnology and Stephen Alfred Forbes Professor of Zoology.

With a legacy established by scholars such as Edward Birge, a pioneer in freshwater science who began his career at the university in 1875, Aldo Leopold, the father of the field of wildlife management and ecology, and John Curtis who created the foundation of modern plant ecology, and many others, UW-Madison boasts more than a century of strong ecological research and a history laced with prolific leaders.

This rich tradition, combined with the university's dedication to cutting-edge research, continues to draw talented young ecologists to UW-Madison.

"We have a fabulous group of ecologists on the UW-Madison campus," says Don Waller, a professor of botany and environmental studies, "one of the strongest collective programs in the country, if not the world."

In fact, a study published in Ecosphere described Wisconsin as a "hotspot" of ecological activity " one of a handful of states with proportionately more Ecological Society of America (ESA) members, recipients of National Science Foundation grants for ecological research, and authors of published articles in leading ecological journals. Four UW professors have also been awarded the MacArthur award, ESA's highest honor for ecological research.

Attend the Wisconsin
Ecology Fall Symposium
featuring David Schimel
of the National Ecological
Observatory Network,
Sept. 20-21 »

According to Waller, ecologists at UW-Madison have the opportunity to work in an exceptionally interdisciplinary environment. Researchers span 23 academic departments, from anthropology to botany, limnology to zoology.

This breadth creates endless opportunities for research partnerships, but it poses significant communication challenges on UW-Madison's sprawling 935-acre campus. Day-to-day interactions can be sparse.

To bridge this gap and foster collaboration among ecologists on campus, in the early 90s professors John Magnuson, Stanley Temple, then-Nelson Institute director Tom Yuill and others formed an ad hoc group of faculty, staff and students, now known as Wisconsin Ecology.

"They put ecology on the map [at UW-Madison]," says Carpenter, a former chair of the organization. The program is supported and managed by the Nelson Institute in collaboration with several colleges, departments and research centers across campus.

The organization's first decade centered on symposia that showcased UW-Madison ecologists and their work. But a few years ago, a group of highly engaged faculty members concluded that they needed to do more to respond to mounting environmental challenges.

Don Waller

"We've got to get together and collaborate because of the magnitude of environmental problems we face," says Waller, who currently chairs Wisconsin Ecology. "We have an opportunity to put ourselves in the best possible position to look at those problems."

Today, Wisconsin Ecology works to increase collaborative curricula and research, make ecology more visible to prospective students, push new initiatives such as an undergraduate ecology track within biology and a graduate certificate in ecology (to be offered through the Nelson Institute), and gain new members.

"We started involving younger ecologists; it wasn't just the senior faculty running everything," says Carpenter.

That effort includes a strong emphasis on recruiting students, and Wisconsin Ecology is relying on its youngest and newest faculty members to lead the way in training the next generation of ecologists.

Zoologists Peter McIntyre, John Orrock and Ellen Damschen and Jonathan Pauli of forest and wildlife ecology are among a new cohort of UW-Madison professors continuing the Wisconsin tradition of collaborative ecological research and education. Read more about each of them below.

Peter McIntyre John Orrock Ellen Damschen Jonathan Pauli

Peter McIntyre

By the age of seven, Peter McIntyre already knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. …More »

John Orrock

John Orrock has always had a fervor for figuring things out. …More »

Ellen Damschen

According to Ellen Damschen, if you understand the problem, you also understand the solution. …More »

Jonathan Pauli

"Ecology isn't rocket science. It's much more difficult." Those eight words jumped out at Jonathan Pauli in graduate school. …More »