For our latest Women in Ecology interview, we spoke with Dr. Phoebe Lehmann Zarnetske, an ecologist and associate professor at Michigan State University. With her involvement with multiscale research and interdisciplinary studies, plus investigating ecological communities and their response to climate change and invasive species, she has experience across many aspects of Ecology.
Below, Zarnetske highlights her path through academia, the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the challenges of maintaining a work-life balance. She also shares her thoughts on what it will take for scientific contributions to be more widely adopted for broader societal challenges.
Can you tell us about your career path and what inspired you to become involved in your current research and field?
My path started when I was young and developed a love of nature and curiosity about the outdoors and ecology. I grew up in a family that embraced being outside and exploring nature, as both of my parents are really into nature and hiking, particularly nature photography, bird watching, and gardening.
As a biology and environmental science undergrad at Colby College in Maine, I stayed on campus one summer and helped faculty and Dr. Phillip Nyhus (postdoc funded by The National Science Foundation (NSF) AIRE program; now faculty) work on geographic information system (GIS) projects, which was relatively new at the time. GIS enabled us to precisely map and model Sumatran tiger habitat for conservation and assess Maine watershed health – two projects that showed me how useful GIS is to store and capture data in order to understand spatial patterns. I also helped develop a curriculum to incorporate GIS into the undergraduate classroom, which resulted in my first co-authored publication.
For my Master's, I went to Utah State University to work with Dr. Thomas Edwards on a U.S. Forest Inventory and Analysis project through the USGS Cooperative Unit, which offered a great opportunity to explore spatial analysis at a broad scale across the Intermountain West, specifically assessing new LANDFIRE & Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) map products with species distribution modeling for forest indicator species like the northern goshawk and three-toed woodpecker.
Later, my Ph.D. at Oregon State was co-advised with Drs. Eric Seabloom and Sally Hacker, and the experience was very community-ecology oriented with a focus on the Pacific Northwest coastal dune ecosystem.Through this, I grew a great appreciation for the complex biophysical feedbacks among ecosystem engineering species and abiotic conditions and studied how invasive species impact other systems such as communities of plants and shore birds.
During my Ph.D., with the support of an NSF IGERT fellowship in Ecosystem Informatics, I developed an interest in interdisciplinary research, specifically with engineers and geomorphologists. For example, we designed and built a wind tunnel in the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab at Oregon State. The study subjected different combinations of dune grass species to varying amounts of sand and wind speeds and measured the dune-building capacity of plant species and density. When combined with field measurements and mesocosm experiments that measured the impact of sand supply on dune grass competition, we were able to explain how each dune grass species and growth habit created different dune shapes along the entire Pacific Northwest coast.
I initially focused a lot on spatial analysis and species distribution modeling in my Master's degree. In my Ph.D., I focused on field and experimental research with biotic interactions and community ecology. I found that even though I worked on very different systems, I kept thinking about the role of biotic interactions among species when interpreting broad-scale patterns, especially in the context of environmental changes, including climate change.
So, as a postdoc at Yale, I developed a project with Drs. David Skelly and Mark Urban that focused on the impacts of biotic interactions and climate change on patterns of biodiversity and the composition of ecological communities. I believe it's important to leverage experimentation alongside broad-scale spatial data analysis. You can look at patterns, but if you don't understand the underlying processes, it's hard to make robust predictions.
I first learned about NEON through Dr. James McMahon, former director of the Ecology Center at Utah State and one of the scientists who helped develop NEON. He was passionate about NEON, believing it would be the next big thing in ecology, and recommended I get involved. When I became a professor, the first round of NEON EAGER proposals were being requested by NSF.Through an Ecological Society of America "Scaling Up" Workshop, I met a great group of other early career collaborators (Drs. Sydne Record, Ben Baiser, Angela Strecker, Lydia Beaudrot, Yoni Belmaker, Mao-Ning Tuanmu). We put together a proposal leveraging NEON's organismal trait data to quantify how biotic interactions at a local scale structure biodiversity patterns at a continental scale. Building on the insights we gained from that grant, we are now in the midst of our second funded NSF NEON Macrosystems project, focused on understanding the interactions among different drivers of biodiversity patterns (e.g., intraspecific trait variation, geodiversity, disturbance, land use, and climate), and at what scales they are most important.
Currently, I am an associate professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Integrative Biology, where I lead the Spatial and Community Ecology Lab (SpaCE Lab), and I direct the Institute for Biodiversity, Ecology, Evolution, and Macrosystems (IBEEM). Through IBEEM, we support training and postdoc fellowships to foster collaborative research spanning multiple scales.
What's the most fun part of being an ecologist?
The most fun part for me is the collaboration. I really enjoy seeing how the various disciplines within and outside ecology contribute and work together. I really like facilitating interdisciplinary research collaboration as well.
What challenges have you faced in the field of STEM?
I've had very supportive mentors, colleagues, and family throughout my career. They all helped me navigate challenges - in particular, my parents and my husband, Jay Zarnetske (environmental hydrologist and associate professor at MSU). Jay and I have navigated a dual-career path since we applied to graduate schools. What's been most challenging for me is managing the demands of academia and tenure while having twin children and maintaining a work-life balance with my family. It's a constant pressure and responsibility that changes all the time. I fortunately was able to extend my tenure clock by a year because of the birth of my children. But having two at once was (and still is) quite challenging. In the U.S., the parental leave time is not sufficient.
Additionally, one of the biggest challenges with academia in particular is that a lot of work seems never-ending. It's a constant cycle, and it's rare to have time to truly celebrate accomplishments before diving into the next deadline or portion of a project. After living in France for a year on sabbatical, I have a new appreciation for the benefits of limiting work to business hours and have been trying to stick with that. It's also important to learn how to say 'no' to work requests. I'm still working on that.
Are you confident that the scientific community will be able to solve the world's biggest ecological issues?
I'm confident that scientists can solve ecological issues. We have a great amount of innovation and capacity to understand and provide the best available science that society needs. But the biggest hurdles to progress are the slow pace of adopting more sustainable and equitable solutions; the lack of funding for science and science education, especially focused on global changes including climate change); and the need for more people at the science-policy interface, in science communication, and applying science to action.
These are huge challenges to overcome and we're running out of time as ecological issues worsen. We need more people, funding, outreach, and commitment to collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaborations across STEAM, engaging policymakers, corporations, and organizations, and partnering with diverse communities are all essential in solving the world's biggest ecological issues.
What do you hope to do in your field in the future? What areas of research would you like to see more investment in the future and why?
I've developed a spatial and community ecology research program that connects experimental work with observed patterns across scales, but I want to expand my research to address solutions more directly. I feel most of the difference I've made thus far has been by training the next generation of scientists and advancing fundamental understanding of the consequences of climate change, environmental feedbacks, and biotic interactions on ecology. I'm interested in working directly with other sectors, including energy, policy, governance, and indigenous peoples and local communities. I think there's a huge amount that can be gained by applying the science we have to adapt to and mitigate climate change and lessen the biodiversity crisis.
We, as a scientific community, have a lot of science showing that climate change and land use change impacts can be pretty massive and, in many cases, detrimental to ecological systems and their services. It's extremely urgent that we stop emissions and habitat destruction to halt further climate change and biodiversity loss. To achieve this, we need more science to action—more work that takes the research and applies it to help solve the climate and biodiversity crises.
More investment in interdisciplinary research and inclusion of diverse communities and perspectives is essential. Every time I've engaged with people outside my field and with different perspectives, I've learned so much. It's also changed my perspective about what is possible. It's given me more hope that we can move forward, together, in an innovative and positive way.