Ecosystems and Biodiversity: ecologist Jesse Miller curates Real Scientists!

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We are pleased to have post-doctoral researcher Jesse Miller (@Texosporium) talking about botany and wildlife ecology on Real Scientists this week! Here is a short interview with Jesse:

Why/How did you end up in science?
I took a class on edible and medicinal plants in college and got hooked on botany! I planned to become an organic farmer, but I serendipitously got a job doing botany work right after college. I had so much fun studying plants that I didn’t want to stop. So I spent a few years doing seasonal botany fieldwork, and eventually was hired by a plant ecology researcher. I ended up going to grad school, and here I am today, still doing science with plants. (and lichens!!!)

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?
I discovered at some point I was really fascinated by plant communities and how they change across the landscape. There’s just nothing I would rather do than try to unravel their mysteries. And I’m still enjoying it years later, so I guess I’m in the right line of work. I also like the diversity of activities in the academic research life. I get to do fieldwork, analyze data, and write papers, but also mentor students, schmooze with visiting scholars, visit collaborators, go to conferences where I catch up with like-minded researchers, and sometimes I teach a class or seminar too. It keeps life interesting.

Tell us about your work?
I study what causes plants to grow where they do in the “wild,” and how plant communities are changing as a result of human influence. Currently, I’m looking at how herbaceous plant communities (grasses and wildflowers) change after wildfires in the western USA. We’re currently experiencing larger and hotter fires than we have historically had in California, and there’s some evidence that this may cause a loss of plant diversity. Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems, but ecosystems are adapted to certain kinds of fire, and other kinds of fire may have more negative effects.

I’m also very interested in lichens, which are beautiful little organisms that are often overlooked, despite being awesome (and important). I ask the same kinds of questions with lichens as I do with plants (what causes them to form the communities they do, and how their communities change across time and space). But, I have a special twinkle in my eye when I do the lichen work.

Why should the lay public care about your research/work?
Since plants support all other terrestrial life (e.g., animals), understanding what’s happening with plant communities ultimately is relevant to the entire ecosystem. And ultimately, humans are dependent on natural systems for our survival. For example, most of California’s water comes from the Sierra Nevada, and the loss of forests after fires could alter our water supplies. More broadly, there’s plenty of evidence that biodiversity is related to ecosystems being able to provision us with things we need, whether it’s wood, water, recreation, or just natural beauty (“ecosystem services”). When we lose biodiversity, we may lose some of those things.

More broadly, the world is a fascinating place, and there’s a lot we still don’t understand about how communities of organisms form and persist over time. To me the basic science aspect of my research is very compelling–but there are endless applications for understanding biodiversity as well. Humans make all kinds of decisions that can affect biodiversity, and it’s important that they be as informed as possible. Any time you buy a product, whether it’s food or a computer, that thing has an environmental footprint that is affecting biodiversity in some ecosystem. Human actions affect every part of the world–even the most remote places experience consequences of changing atmospheric composition caused by humans. It’s our responsibility to understand what we’re doing to the world as best we can, and to predict how future actions will affect natural systems–which ultimately cycle back to affect us.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
I really enjoy teaching short classes on plant (and lichen and mushroom) identification in the community on occasion. I also maintain ties to several botanists I used to do consulting work with before I went to grad school, and we still collaborate on research projects on the side. These folks have great natural history skills, and we have fun working together.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I love bike touring–there’s nothing like the sense of freedom and adventure on an extended bike trip. It’s also one of the best ways to get to experience landscapes–moving fast enough to see a large area, but slow enough to really experience it and take it in.

I also like to play music with friends, go dancing, and grow veggies! Also, I love hunting for edible mushrooms in the woods.

How would you describe your ideal day off? 
A trip to the cabin in the mountains with no communication with the outside world is about as good as it gets. Or, if it’s field season and I’ve been in the woods all week, I like to go into the city and see friends and eat food that I didn’t cook on a camp stove.


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