Could you provide a little background about yourself?
My mathematics undergraduate degree is from Berea College, and my biology graduate degrees are from the University of Louisville. I began my research career as an ecosystem ecologist studying the effects of restoration management techniques on native glade openings in eastern deciduous forests, specifically focusing on the ecosystem nutrient losses following prescribed burns. After earning my master’s degree, I worked for a few years in a lab that focused on urban forest ecology. We studied how the context around urban forests affected aspects of forest function such as nutrient cycling. For my dissertation work, I wanted to focus on urban ecosystems, so I stayed in Louisville to conduct my doctoral research.
What were you specifically looking at with your dissertation work?
I was interested in studying indirect human influences in forests along urban interstates that experience natural ecosystem processes, like forest regeneration, yet also experience a lot of heavy influence from the highway. Encouragingly, we found that the tree community was very diverse and mostly native. We also found some rare native species in a few forest sites, which was exciting. However, there was an exotic invasive shrub species, Amur honeysuckle, that had a strong influence on the forest structure and how it functioned. I’ll be continuing to conduct research on how non-native invasive species change urban forest structure and function.
What did you do after your dissertation work?
As a post-doctoral scientist at the University of Utah, I worked on a large, collaborative National Science Foundation Macrosystems project. About half of the principal investigators on the grant were ecologists, and the other half were social scientists. Urban ecosystems are socially, ecologically, and technologically complex systems, so it is important to try to understand the impact of human behavior, preferences, activities, and decision-making while conducting ecological research. In this project, we were trying to understand how urban ecosystems are becoming more similar based on such factors. I conducted ecological field work and homeowner interviews in residential yards in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles for the project.
What is your favorite part about studying urban forestry?
The majority of the U.S. population and over half of the global population now live in cities and associated built areas, so understanding how to make cities more livable is really important for humanity. Cities also have a large impact on our environment, and in-turn can act as a natural experiment for many global change factors such as non-native invasive species and altered climate regimes. My passion for studying urban forest ecology stems not only from the fact that many core ecological questions still remain unanswered, but also the applicability and importance of urban research for people.
What made you decide to want to come to UD?
I was impressed by the warmth and passion of the people I met during the interview process. I had several positive interactions with the faculty and others in the college. I felt like it was a collegial place and since I have been here, that’s the way it’s been.
I’m also excited to be on the east coast where there are two large cities (Philadelphia and New York) to the north and two large cities to the south (Washington D. C. and Baltimore) that may be ideal study sites.
Will you be teaching any classes?
I’m teaching an urban ecology class this fall, and I will teach an urban forestry class next spring.
How was your first semester at UD?
Exciting and challenging. I’m in the process of getting the lab set up, and this past summer, we started collecting tree and understory vegetation data in some forest fragments close to Newark and in Philadelphia. I’ve meet so many wonderful people since my arrival, and the collegial and collaborative feel in the department and across the departments is really inspiring.
Article by Adam Thomas