Question: Barbara, What led you to researching wind disturbance in the tropics? Was there anything specific that inspired you?
I’ve worked with other types of disturbances such as fire and logging before, so it was interesting to learn about another kind of natural disturbance. Wind disturbance is a prominent disturbance in some forests and is changing with climate change, so it’s important that we understand its effect on tropical forests. Many scientists that have done work in Puerto Rico and co-authors in my paper have been publishing about the consequences of hurricanes on tropical forests since I was a kid, so it’s been inspiring to learn from and work with them.
Question: Why is it important that we understand the effects of disturbance, specifically nutrient cycling, on tropical forests in a changing climate?
Tropical forests are self-sustaining, meaning they generally recycle their own nutrients because they don’t have, for instance, much extra phosphorus coming in to fertilize them. They may lose their nutrients because it rained and their nutrients runoff with excess water, so it is important that we understand how they self organize to recover and resume their functioning. Each tree species uses their nutrients differently. Some are stingy, some aren’t – and the model NGEE-Tropics is working to establish needs to capture that in order to predict the forest’s response to future disturbances under climate change.
Question: How has NGEE helped you to develop your career thus far?
This is the first time I worked with dozens of people. Through team-based science and working with so many people that have different backgrounds, I’ve been learning a lot and it’s been an amazing experience. I wish my day was 48 hours because there is so much within NGEE-Tropics that I would love to learn. I’ve been very quick to make the best out of meeting times to try to absorb as much as possible.
What is a recent experience that reinforced your passion for tropical ecology?
I think the fact that I had to sit down and look through data and papers made me appreciate the effort of people from decades ago. We’re talking about times that were much harder as far as how you analyze data and computational resources, so this made me connect with people from the past. I think this reinforced my passion for understanding these systems that are so complex – we are still figuring out many things, and I appreciate the fact that there are so many studies and that I am able to sit down and learn from this information.
Has NGEE given you any ideas about the next stage of your career?
Working with NGEE-Tropics made me realize I really like working with forests. The next step in my career is to continue doing research, but explore moving towards applied research. This experience is making me learn more about the systems that I want to better manage, which is a rewarding experience, but I would like to be more connected to this management component. There is a strong need for us to understand how physical systems like tropical forests sequester carbon, and how they can be used to mitigate climate change. Professionally, I’d like to have an applied component of my research to bridge the fundamental knowledge I have gained over the years with ongoing efforts to mitigate climate change, restore forests, and better manage them.