Laura Huenneke, Ecosystem Ecologist
More Career Connections
am a plant ecologist involved in the study natural ecosystems.
I currently work out of New Mexico State University
and the Jornada Long Term Ecological Research project.
In addition to the Jornada desert, I worked mostly with
forested systems and mountain systems. This meant spending
time in the mountains of the southwestern United States
as well as in the rain forests of Hawaii.
work deals quite a bit with population growth and attempting
to make predictions about changes in the numbers of
an organism. I study rare plants and also their converse
or opposites: plants that have become so weedy or aggressively
invasive as to become problems by killing out other
vegetation. We ask the question, "Is an organism getting
rarer or a lot more abundant?" Mathematics gives us
the ability to model and project the outcome given the
current trends in the ecosystem.
are still a lot of rare plants left in the mountain
systems. The Chihuahuan desert of southern New Mexico
doesn't have so many rare or endemic species. That focuses
my attention more on the common native desert organisms
and the roles they play in the ecosystem, rather than
on the conservation-related organisms.
work on the desert ecosystems in New Mexico has to do
in part with changes in the diversity and structure
of desert communities. Around the world, humans have
had a huge impact on semi-arid ecosystems through their
grazing animals, their impact on local water sources,
and all kinds of human activities. We are interested
in the consequences of these actions on the diversity
of plants and animals in desert ecosystems. We are also
interested in the impact of changed diversity on the
stability and function of desert systems.
with modeling and predicting consequences, mathematics
is an important tool when describing a desert. Deserts,
by their nature, are kind of barren, so the organisms
are few and far between, making it impossible to actually
count them. This means you have to consider a range
of sampling questions. What size area do you have to
sample to feel confident that you have observed the
diversity of organisms that are in a desert? And how
long and how frequently do you have to sample? In the
desert something different happens every year because
of different rain fall and temperature patterns. These
cause the desert to naturally look a little different
from year to year. It,s my job to figure out the patterns
of change in the desert over time. These might involve
local scale changes, such as the cumulative impact of
poor grazing practices on the desert. Or it might be
more global scale changes, such as changes in climate
or changes resulting from increased nitrogen deposits
from the atmosphere. Mathematics is really important
in all aspects of conservation biology and the study
I was in school, I never thought I would be a plant
ecologist and conservation biologist. I would encourage
all students and teachers to explore and to take as
many challenging courses and experiences as they can.
Mathematics and science are all about exploration. Even
if you don't feel that you are gifted or talented in
a particular area, you can still benefit from the exposure
and the training. These experiences can help you find
what excites you. Even if you think that you're not
talented or gifted in math or science, being exposed
to it stretches your mind and opens you up to many more
possibilities. And watch for local research centers
and scientific institutions. There you can often find
mathematics, science, and technology in action and might
even be able to take part in some educational or hands-on
experiences. There is a lot out there!
as a science is all about synthesis and integration.
It puts together biological science, physical science,
human impacts, mathematics, and technology. These all
come together to address issues that can't really be
studied bit by bit. You can bring so many different
perspectives to bear so productively on problems that
are really important. That's what makes it really exciting!
Exploring! Keep Pushing!