I am an ecologist interested in the processes that shape community composition. Specifically, I’m interested in that processes that shape plant and animal communities in landscapes that have been heavily impacted by human activities.
There are few places where human activity has interacted with natural processes to shape communities quite like the insular Caribbean. Small, densely populated for centuries, with high rates of endemism, the Caribbean can seem like a microcosm of the future earth. The region is plagued by pollution problems, threatened by strengthening hurricanes, and is susceptible to drought and rising sea levels. And amongst these problems sit the tropical dry forests, one of the most disturbed, least respected and least recognised tropical biomes.
Caribbean ecology is a fascinating mix of old and new. The Greater Antilles are parts of an ancient landmass, and most of them have existed long enough that they support endemic species and genera whose ancestors dispersed to the islands many millions of years ago. But the Caribbean also has many younger endemics – terminal branches of widely-distributed species which have speciated after (more recent) dispersals. It’s the kind of thing that can leave you scratching your head, puzzling over species concepts. It all gets really interesting, of course, when you try to apply these ideas to the distribution of native and introduced species in forest fragments.
When it comes to teaching, my goal is to help student learn how to think critically and draw original insights. I would also like help them gain an appreciation for the subject matter. When I teach ecology or environmental science, it’s safe to assume that many of the students are taking the class because they care about the subject matter. When I teach economic botany the students also have chosen to take the class…they aren’t quite sure why they’re their but it either sounded interesting or they heard good things about it from their friends. When in comes to general botany, on the other hand, I can rely on none of these. People take botany because they need a “science with lab”. They take botany because they need it for their (zoology or microbiology) major.
Far too few people take general botany because they think that plants are cool. When we talk about living things, people tend to think of animals. Animals can endlessly fascinating organisms, and people respond to them if you can get them to notice them. The first step towards getting students to appreciate the biota that surrounds them, even in an urban environment, is to get them to notice the animals – the squirrels, the birds, the butterflies. Animals move around, they do things. But it takes a moment to notice them – asking people to notice animals amounts to asking them to slow down for a moment. Plants, on the other hand, are underfoot or overhead, changing slowly, taken for granted because they’re there. Students don’t come into class with any animus towards plants, just disinterest. Consequently, I love to watch students discover that, yes, plants are indeed interesting. Convincing students that plants are cool, that plants really do matter, is deeply rewarding.
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If none of this makes sense, well, I’m hoping that it will eventually, as I turn those statements into links and expand upon it all in the blog.