Joseph Fail, Jr.

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

Degree                                              Ph.D. 1983 (University of Georgia)
Position                                            Associate Professor of Biology
Department                                      Department of Natural Sciences
Organization                                    Johnson C. Smith University


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

My interest in ecology was shaped as a boy growing up in southern Alabama. While fishing and hunting with my father, I became very curious about the interactions of plants and animals with the farms that patch-worked the countryside. That curiosity led to a BS degree in biology and education at nearby Troy State College in 1967. Mr. Schonberg – he was a very fine biology teacher – taught me that curiosity was the most important character I could have to become both a scientist and a teacher.

After three years in the Navy I began a year-long travel adventure through Europe. While traveling through the Canary Islands, I met a botanist from the University of Marburg in Germany who let me accompany him while he conducted pollination studies of island plants. As a result of this experience I decided to study the topic I was most curious about – plants and their interactions with their environment. That professor, whose name, alas, I do not now recall, was probably the most influential person in steering me toward a career in ecology.

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

I learned about ecology related careers while working on my masters degree in biology at the University of Alabama. I fell into a grant there that was experimenting with strip mine reclamation and allowed me to design, experience and publish an ecological study. That experience, which demonstrated to me that I could actually do science, led me to carry on my studies in plant ecology at the University of Georgia, which I began in 1978. Georgia had (and still does have) a very vibrant and intense ecology program. At the time I started, a new grant had been funded by NSF to investigate the relationship of riparian forests with agricultural systems in south Georgia.

My job was to characterize the community structure, biomass production, and nutrient dynamics of forests affected by upland agricultural practices. It was very tough, but I stuck with it and eventually got that study published as well. The biggest problem I had with doing ecosystem research was learning data management. As in basically had to find my way alone through the maze of (then) mainframe computers complete with punch cards, and try to make a coherent story out of reams of numbers. For 13 years now I have been teaching at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC where I am an Associate Professor. My basic teaching philosophies are: teach science as a story; keep it simple (KISS); force reading, writing , and arithmetic; and ‘the only way to learn how to write is to write.’

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

My advice for communicating ecology, period, is to tell ecology as a story and ‘keep it simple.’ Those ideas have special advantages with respect to diverse audiences in that everyone is brought along in a manner that they can relate to from their own life experiences; and by learning ecology as a story they avoid the pitfalls of thinking in ‘soundbites’ that today’s society is so fond of. Thinking in terms of connected stories is an excellent frame of mind for coping with the many facets of ecology.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

  • Be absolutely honest in deciding what you like to study. Do not feign interest.
  • Practice writing constantly.
  • Stay apart from the crowd.
  • Work smarter, not harder.
  • Learn Spanish.


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