Laura Huenneke, Ecosystem Ecologist

More Career Connections


I 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.

Our 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.

There 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.

My 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.

Along 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 of ecosystems.

When 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!

Ecology 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!

Keep Exploring! Keep Pushing!