Thursday, November 19, 2015

Dr. Bissett - the newest CPEL PhD

Today was a stellar day for the Coastal Plant Ecology Lab! Spencer Bissett successfully defended his dissertation titled CONSEQUENCES OF VINE INFESTATION: LINKING ABIOTIC INFLUENCES AND BIOTIC INTERACTIONS TO SUCCESSIONAL AND STRUCTURAL CHANGES IN COASTAL COMMUNITIES. His research focused on coastal habitats which are inherently vulnerable to the effects of global change at the interface of marine and terrestrial systems. Barrier island systems in particular serve not only as protective buffers against storm events, but also as sentinel ecosystems for observation of the impacts of sea level rise, and of increasing storm frequency and intensity. In the mid-Atlantic region, shrub thickets of Morella species compose the dominant woody community. Spencer's objective was to investigate the distribution and community roles of vine species in mid-Atlantic barrier island woody communities. He quantified environmental variables at two barrier habitats with differing site management histories and corresponding topography, and found that abiotic factors affected distributions of woody species, which subsequently affected vine species distributions. Vines demonstrated a long-lasting effect of arresting or delaying succession, and are potentially responsible for the lack of redevelopment of mature maritime forest at these sites. At Hog Island, Virginia, remotely-sensed data were utilized to determine the three-dimensional structural effects of vine infiltration in woody canopies. Vines were found to reduce canopy height and depth, and increase density, short-term diversity, and light-intercepting biomass. Significant vine infiltration can accelerate senescence of shrub thickets, but often results in persistent tangled masses of vegetation which reduce recruitment of later-successional species. These effects may represent long-term, lasting impacts of vine establishment and expansion in these habitats, affecting community succession towards diverse and stable maritime forest, and significantly altering resource dynamics in these sensitive ecosystems.

Congratulations Dr. Bissett! Your achievement is well earned!

Spencer just moments after passing his defense. Somehow a Hawaiian shirt materialized out of nowhere.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Dr. Priya Davidar - pioneering female ecologist in India

By Kanchan Anand Joshi

Dr. Priya Davidar is one of the first women ecologists in India. She was born in 1952, and was the eldest amongst the children. She feels that she became an ecologist through fortunate set of circumstances. Her father was E.R.C. Davidar, a big game hunter who later gave up the gun and became a wildlife photographer and conservationist. Her father took her for fishing and trekking in wilderness areas, which gave her the spirit of adventure and curiosity about life around her.  It is perhaps not surprising that Dr. Davidar chose to become a field biologist. She earned her Ph.D. from the Bombay Natural History Society under the supervision of Dr. Salim Ali – ‘the bird man of India’. She personally feels that her advisor was gender blind and supported all his students.

She came to the US in 1981 for her post-doctoral studies and found she had a lot of catching up to do in terms of scientific and analytical skills.  Although most people were warm and friendly, race and gender were undercurrents that were difficult to ignore at times.  The support of many outstanding scientists in US helped her.  Despite her impressive field experience, Dr. Davidar remained unsure about the job prospects for an ecologist in India, so she completed her M.S. from Harvard school of Public Health and studied immune responses of rodents to the deer tick. But she soon realized that she was not interested in human related health diseases, and took the opportunity to return to India when she was offered a faculty position at the newly established Pondicherry University in 1987. Dr. E. O. Wilson has this to say about her decision to return to India:  "When she chose to return to India, I knew she had a remarkable opportunity to play a pioneering role in ecology and biogeography, which she has achieved”.

Coming back to India was an opportunity to do field work in remote areas, as well as a shock, due to the politics, mediocrity and often times brutality of academic life.  Caste, region and gender have overwhelming influence in professional life in India, she found.  My advice to researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds unwelcome in upper-caste networks is to find collaborators who are supportive to buffer the harshness," she says. "Being persistent and carrying on despite difficulties is important. What I found is, time is an important ally that leads to eventual success." She received hostility from male colleagues too. “They suggested that I get married and stay in the kitchen”. “I used to take it quite personally and suffered a lot. Now, I realize this only creates needless stress for oneself,” she says.

Overcoming all these obstacles, Dr. Davidar has held a post at Pondicherry University’s Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences since 1987, and carried out research in diverse fields such as pollination biology, island biogeography, species distribution patterns, and conservation biology. She has advised more than 30 MS students and 12 Ph.D.’s have been awarded under her guidance. She has more than 90 publications. Of late, there has been a shift in the focus of her research. She is actively working in the field of grass roots conservation and together  with her husband Jean-Philippe Puyravaud carry out research and training at the Sigur Nature Trust, a nonprofit nature oriented charitable trust. She feels that relationships are among the most important aspects of a career. Dr. Davidar’s father and Dr. Salim Ali were important early influences for her. Also her encounter with Jean-Philippe Puyravaud changed the course of her life. She married him and her career!