I am an ecologist. I study plant and animal communities and while my questions are varied, they follow two themes, one fundamental and one applied:
How are communities structured?
This is a fundamental ecological question. Very broadly, communities are structured via abiotic (e.g., precipitation, nutrient availability) and biotic (e.g., competition, predator-prey) interactions. I address questions of top-down (consumer) and bottom-up (resource) control of communities and food-web structure, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and the role of species traits (behavior, morphology) in structuring communities. Most, but not all, of my research is focused consumer-consumed interactions.
How do human activities affect the structure and function of ecosystems?
With 7 billion people on the planet and a predicted growth of 9 billion by the time I’m thinking about retirement (2050), our impact on the planet will likely continue to grow. The effect of humans on ecosystems is often filtered through the lens of plant and animal responses. Whether it’s via species loss or introduction, changes in habitat structure, or resource availability, human activities can alter community structure, which in turn can affect how an ecosystem functions.
My work operates primarily marine ecosystems, in particular, salt marshes. And my favorite subjects of study are invertebrates (you can see some lovely images here).
I am absolutely a field ecologist, employing field studies and complementary laboratory studies to address my questions. The field is a wonderful living laboratory where I am immersed in the first step of the scientific method, observation. Give me the mud and the sweat and the bugs of a day on the marsh over reading emails any day.
I am also a naturalist. I have kept my childhood fascination of things that wiggle and scoot as I slog through a creek or poke around a tide pool. As kids we are born naturalists, wondering what things are and often poking these things with sticks. Today my ‘sticks’ are more advanced, but I admit to still poking a thing or two with a stick. My life as a naturalist is rooted in the Arkansas Ozarks of my childhood and continues to flourish in the world’s coastlines. While I am nourished by a simple walk, I gain strength from the words of contemporaries such as Wilson, Safina and Haskell and still listen to the timeless narratives of my recent ancestors Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson.
Whether it was my mama letting me keep spiders in her mayonnaise jars or my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. John Fleeger, always having his door open to listen to my brilliant (and more often, not-so-brilliant) ideas, I have had generous intellectual and emotional support of my science. I employ a similar engaged, hands-on approach. I have worked with over two-dozen brilliant young minds in my tender career and some have been involved all the way from experimental design to publication (Johnson and Jessen 2008, Johnson and Short 2013). If you ask me what I would like to be doing in 5 years, I’ll tell you that in 20 years I hope I’m still standing knee-deep in a creek with a young scientist, sharing the excitement over recently captured crab.
Thank you for taking the time to read all the way to the bottom of the page.
If you’re curious, here is my CV.
Marine Biological Laboratory
Woods Hole, Massachusetts