David R. Foster

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

Degree                                                Ph.D. 1983 (University of Minnesota)
Position                                              Director of the Harvard Forest
Department                                        Ecological Research Institute
Organization                                      Harvard University

Cooper Award for 2003

dfosterWhen did you become interested in ecology?
I grew up in the farming countryside of Connecticut with a summer place in the much wilder landscape of the Northeast Kingdom of northern Vermont. Between working on farms and exploring both landscapes I became fascinated with the question of how people and natural process shape what we see in nature. What we now call mentors were the most important people guiding me into ecology: as an undergraduate William Niering and Richard Goodwin at Connecticut College; as a graduate student Herbert Wright, Jr., Miron Heinselman, Ed Cushing, Eville Gorham, and Margaret Davis.

How did you learn about ecological careers?
As an undergraduate I researched schools and careers in ecology as thoroughly as I could. This opened my eyes considerably. As a graduate student I spoke to many people in related fields, ranging as far as environmental law.

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?
The most important force was my wife, encouraging me to finish my Ph.D. and get on with a life. Her encouragement prompted me to finish in a hurry (4 years) and resulted in my applying for my first job as a professor of biology at Harvard. Since then I have remained at Harvard, where I am now the Director of the Harvard Forest, an ecological research institute.

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
Seek to write in a new style for outlets that are used by practitioners (e.g., conservationists, foresters, land managers) and find groups that really need the basic ecological information that you can provide. I try to put every project to what I call the “cocktail test”: if you are at a family holiday and your Uncle Mort comes up to you and asks “So, what are you doing that is useful to society, you have a meaningful answer.

What key advice would you offer a student today?
The most important experience for me, and that which I try to provide for as many students as I can, has been summer research opportunities in which it is possible to apply in the field or laboratory, that which is learned in the classroom. Getting as much of this type of experience as possible is the best thing that a future scientist can do.

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