Wednesday, September 30, 2015

PhD student Stephen Via wins 1st place!

Stephen Via won 1st place for best student presentation at the International Phytotechnologies Conference! He presented his work titled "Physiological and morphological responses to explosives contamination across plant functional groups”.  Additionally, Stephen was awarded travel grants through the conference and VCU graduate school.  Congratulations, Stephen, for your significant accomplishments! This is excellent recognition for you, CPEL, and the Integrative Life Sciences program at VCU. We are all very proud of you!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ornithology for the people - Florence Merriam Bailey

By Jessie Reese

           Florence Merriam Bailey was a pioneering naturalist best known as a celebrated field guide author and for her extensive observational field studies of birds. She was born in 1863 and developed an early interest in natural history and ornithology, which became her life’s pursuit. As a community organizer and environmental advocate, she helped form several chapters of the fledgling Audubon Society and led classes in ornithology there.


She began observational studies of birds near her hometown in New York and her undergraduate institution, Smith College. In contrast to traditional ornithology at the time, where the standard was to shoot the bird first, then identify it using taxonomic key, Florence refused to kill birds, even if it meant letting one go unidentified. She authored her first field guide in 1899, Birds Through an Opera Glass, which focused on bird identification in the field for amateurs.



After living in Western North America and publishing several more identification guides, Florence moved back east and met and married Vernon Bailey, a naturalist and colleague of her brother, both of whom worked for the U.S. Biological Survey. They traveled and worked together throughout Western North America, though sources report that he “collected and studied” while she merely “observed”.




However, Florence consistently published her observations in peer reviewed journals and authored several more books, while her husband authored mostly government technical reports. Florence was recognized throughout her lifetime by such achievements as being the first female elected fellow of the American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) and the first female awarded the AOU’s Brewster Memorial Award for her work Birds of New Mexico. However, it is likely that Florence encountered significant bias early in her career, at a time when male ornithologists opposed the growing popularity of birdwatching, in part because many field guide authors, birdwatching enthusiasts, and Audubon supporters were women. Florence also was severely underrepresented in Who’s Who in America, where she was listed simply as the “brother of C. Hart Merriam” (then the Chief Naturalist at the U.S. Biological Survey) and as being “interested in ornithology”. Interested though she was, a proper citation would include the fact that her first book was the first modern field guide of its kind, that she authored over 100 publications, and helped lead American ornithology away from collection towards the modern observational study.



Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pioneering herpetologist - Doris Mable Cochran

By Logan McDonald

Doris Mable Cochran was an American herpetologist born in 1898.  Before she formally began her collegiate education she was already working at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  She published over 90 taxonomic publications and devoted over 20 years of studies in the West Indies. Cochran established herself in the herpetology community and was well respected by those in her field for her knowledge and experience.  For example, she was the 2nd elected distinguished fellow of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and served as its secretary. 

Despite her contributions to the field, she experienced injustice within the Smithsonian.  This was focused around her title and pay grade- which did not reflect her level of experience.  Her supervisor, Waldo Schmitt advocated on behalf of Cochran.  Yet, individuals such as Remington Kellogg within the Smithsonian, were adamant in opposing her efforts for recognition.  Cochran retired before being properly acknowledged as a full Curator and died shortly thereafter.  Despite her lack of recognition from the Smithsonian, Cochran was acknowledged by her peers with several neo-tropical frog species named after her.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Pioneering woman ecologist - Edith Schwartz Clements

Post by Julie Charbonnier

If you’re an ecologist, you likely have heard of Dr. Frederic Clements, the botanist who forged the theory of plant succession, paving the way for the field of plant ecology. But did you know his wife, Edith Schwartz Clements was a major contributor to his success?


Edith was the first woman to earn a PhD  at the University of Nebraska in 1904. Her dissertation, available here, is a detailed account of the internal morphology of nearly 300 plants. Her work details how environmental variation influences leaf structure and has some interesting theoretical insights on phenotypic plasticity. The couple married and quickly became a dynamic force in ecology, traveling the country collecting data and founding an ecological laboratory in Colorado.
Edith describes herself as facilitator to Frederic’s research , a field assistant, a translator and a typist. In her memoir “Adventures in ecology: half a million miles: from mud to macadam” her passion and relentless enthusiasm leap from the pages. She indeed did drive nearly 600,000 miles around the country, allowing Frederic to explore and observe various plant communities. These trips would eventually coalesce into his theoretical work on plant succession.


Edith began drawing and painting the plants the couples encountered in the field. At the time, plant identification keys did not have illustrations and drawings of nature were largely artistic representations. Edith’s scientific knowledge and artistic skills captured plants in a new way: her drawings were both beautiful and scientifically accurate. Her drawings were eventually published in the couple’s guidebooks, and caught the attention of National Geographic. Edith also spoke several languages and later translated the guidebooks and many of Frederic’s manuscripts. She was a master of combining her unique skills sets to advance her husband’s work.


Edith’s contributions to her husband’s work deserves recognition, but in the early 1900’s, a woman having her own professional research career in ecology would likely have been impossible. Her lifelong dedication to her husband’s research and her own work as as scientific illustrator deserves recognition.



Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Women in Ecology

This is the topic of my graduate seminar course this semester.  We started the course by reading Jean Langenheim's "Address of the Past President: Davis, California August 1988: The Path and Progress of American Women Ecologists".  It is a great introduction to the history of women in ecology (even if plant biased) and provides great examples of the non-traditional paths women have forged for themselves.  Jean Langenheim's work to highlight the importance of women in ecology is remarkable and important to all women ecologists today.  The questions and discussion that arose after reading this seminal paper do not reflect criticism of her efforts, rather questions and issues that still remain. 

17 years later, there is a real interest to create a network of women in ecology as many women feel alone in a field that has made leaps and bounds to be inclusive, especially compared to other scientific disciplines.  After reading the speech, numerous questions arose. For example, what was the social-economic status for these early women?  Is it harder for lower income women to pursue non-traditional paths?  The speech is heavily biased towards academia. What are the other ways to measure success in science and in life? How can this be quantified?

Ecology is an ideal field for non-traditional paths since you don't need a large budget to observe patterns and quantitatively assess measurements.  However, these non-traditional paths mean women had (have) less money for research (and thus, less money for students or post-docs) which may have kept women from achieving "award winning" ecological status.

The list of achievements (e.g. positions and awards) given in the address is remarkable, but today students want to hear more personal facts about people and highlights of their research.  In a recent workshop on women in ecology, several notable women introduced themselves and only one identified herself as a mother (which in fact almost all were).  These are important to the new generation of women in ecology because we want to feel a connection with the women who are in leadership now.  There is still the perception that there is a bias in the present towards unmarried, childless women in science as they will be more dedicated to their work. 

Regarding the balance of career and home life, we feel that the focus is heavily on motherhood and marriage.  However, attaining any kind of work-life balance requires an elaborate set of personal adaptations which should be learned and sustained with the help of mentors and other resources.  These should not be innate qualities women should be expected to possess.

Our class will explore many topics around women (and men) in ecology.  Topics of interest from the students include: How does the economic status add to the barriers women face in ecology? Do lower income women have a harder time succeeding as scientists? How do these issues influence men and other minority groups? How do LGBTQ issues influence the success of women and men in science?

Students think there is a lot of emphasis on how children influence women in science.  Women (and men) may want to invest time in other personal development or may have other family issues (i.e. caring for an elderly parent).  Just because a woman is childless does not mean she will not face significant work-life balance issues and have to make sacrifices.

As we go through the semester, we will first highlight various women in ecology (or related discipline), both historical and contemporary.  As these stories unfold, we will explore the different paths women take, the challenges each woman has faced, and what challenges still remain.  Through this process we will bring attention and find inspiration to move us towards an accepting, inclusive discipline where women and men feel valued and able to access the resources they need to be successful (in any definition of the word).

Langenheim, J. 1988. Address of the Past President: Davis, California August 1988: The Path and Progress of American Women Ecologists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 69: 184 - 197.