Clifford Duke

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.

Degree                                               Ph.D. (Duke University)
Position                                             Director
Department                                       Science Programs
Organization                                     Ecological Society of America


When did you get interested in ecology? Who was most influential in guiding you into ecology?

I knew at a very early age, seven or so, that I wanted to be a scientist of some kind. Initially I was attracted to microbiology, probably because of the power of the microscope to reveal the apparently invisible. My interest in ecology was spurred by the environmental movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, leading me to a major in biology and environmental studies at the University of Vermont. At UVM, my advisor Ian Worley taught me both the fundamental science of ecology and different ways of seeing. In a lecture once, Ian first blurred a slide of a landscape and ultimately completely removed the projector lens, showing us that not all organisms see the same way we do. I’ve never forgotten that moment. I also owe Phil Cook of UVM, and John Giesy, now of Michigan State, for teaching me how to do experiments and how to persevere when they don’t come out the way you planned. Giesy, an environmental toxicologist, also helped me develop skills I used later on as a consultant in ecological risk assessment. My major advisor in grad school, Joe Ramus, introduced me to the concept of scaling in ecology, which has influenced my thinking in and out of science. Joe also taught me to write shorter sentences.

How did you learn about ecological careers? What is your position title now?

Having been interested in science from childhood, there was never any specific point where I learned about careers in ecology. I did learn, from my undergraduate and graduate professors, that some of them did consulting work outside academia, and that is where I spent most of my career before coming to ESA. I also had the good fortune to spend a year studying public policy while I was finishing my Ph.D. at Duke, and learned a great deal about flexible careers that combine science and policy. That flexibility led me, after several years of postdoctoral research, to about twelve years in consulting and now to ESA, where I serve as Director of Science Programs. The Science Office works to integrate ecological science into government and private sector decision-making, which makes it a great place to be for someone interested in the interface of science and policy.

Describe your route to a career in (or using) ecology. What challenges did you need to overcome? What was your training, and what positions have you held?

After finishing my B.A. at UVM, I had the good fortune to spend nearly a year working with John Giesy at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in South Carolina. That was where I learned that one could actually get paid, if not very much, to do science. A housemate there had a Ph.D. from Duke University, and knowing that I was interested in marine ecology, he told me I should apply there. That led me to my Ph.D. research in estuarine ecology at the Marine Laboratory in Beaufort and then to a Master’s degree in public policy while I wrote my Ph.D. thesis. As should be obvious, the primary challenge I’ve had to overcome is combining multiple interests in one career – basic research, environmental problem-solving, and public policy. The last two have dominated my career, but I had great fun doing graduate and postdoctoral research, and see my present position at ESA in part as a way to be of service to the research community.

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?

Find what you love and pursue it. Be open to opportunities — they can come from directions you’ve never imagined.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

Scientists are excited about their work, and they want to tell everyone about it. That’s a great thing about science, and scientists. But we need to remember that our audiences are diverse — all reachable, I believe, but diverse in their interests and vocabularies. We need to listen to our audience, and key the message to those interests and vocabularies. And keep in mind that ecology isn’t just solving the world’s problems — it’s fundamentally exploration and creativity – a joyful activity.


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