Thomas Kitzberger (2004)

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

Degree                                           Ph.D 1994 (University of Colorado)
Position                                         Jefe de Trabajos Practicos
Department                                   Departmento de Ecologia
Organization                                 Universidad Nacional del Comahue

thomas_kitzbergerJorge Rabinovich assumed a key role in promoting the development of Ecology in Argentina during the 80’s. Through SPAIDER, a very efficient ecologist exchange program organized by Jorge, I was able to hear Joe Cohen talk about food web connectivity and Tom Veblen talk about non-equilibrium coexistence of trees. Years later, Tom became the most influential person in my career. After working one season with him in Patagonia he invited me over to Boulder to do a PhD with him. Tom has been a terrific advisor, colleague and friend. With him as a model I gained the much needed judgment and independence to work as a scientist. The third key influence in my career is and has been undoubtedly Eddy Rapoport. With his unique mix of brilliant thinking, modesty and sense of humor, he creates in our lab an environment of creativity and intellectual freedom.

My undergraduate degree in Biology from Universidad de Buenos Aires was earned during a resurgence of ecology in Argentina. This was marked by the return of many influential Argentinean ecologists such as Eddy Rapoport, Jorge Rabinovich and Guillermo Sarmiento. I was dazzled to hear for the first time about a plethora of ideas such as niche shifts, island biogeography, assembly rules, stability, complexity, resilience, non-equilibrium, heterogeneity, coexistence, and so forth.

After five years in Colorado as a graduate student, and two years as a postdoc between Boulder and Bariloche under NSF support, I currently hold a permanent teaching/research position jointly supported by Universidad Nacional del Comahue. I teach a yearly course in Bariloche on Ecology for the Biology major and serve as advisor to several graduate and undergraduate students.

My primeval interests were founded on the impact of coarse-scale disturbances on temperate forest dynamics. Patagonian forests offered a unique scenario of steep productivity gradients overimposed by natural disturbances such as tectonism, massive blowdowns and fires. Paleoecological perspectives and a strong interaction with the tree-ring community made me focus on fire history reconstruction to understand fire regime variations. My years in a geography department with strong GIS emphasis made me focus part of my research on spatial aspects of disturbance regimes and consequences on landscapes. Interaction with paleoclimatologists like Ricardo Villalba and dendroecologists such as Tom Swetnam made me explore frontier work on the role of climatic variability on ecological processes such as fire, tree demography, and biological interactions such as positive plant interactions and herbivory.

A major challenge in my career and probably in that of many of my colleagues in Argentina has been doing research and education in a hostile context: poor universities, little research funding, little interest by governments for science and education. These problems that may seem discouraging fueled our will to demonstrate that doing quality science in Argentina is possible, even during the worst crises.

Academically, a major challenge has been keeping the spectrum of interests and approaches as wide as possible. Understanding ecological systems goes beyond performing short-term manipulative experiments. Complexity of ecological problems requires, I believe, multiple perspectives, including the search for patterns and generalities over a variety of scales, experimentation, retrospective studies and modeling. I would encourage students not to specialize too much, while maintaining high rigor in their research. Boundaries between disciplines or subdisciplines are exciting frontiers and cross terrain where fewer have dared to explore, but where important advances can be attained. Adopt a humble but strongly independent position, released of current scientific fashions. Be as critical as much as you are open to critisicsm.

The final stage of our work is communication, both written and oral. Readers or audiences of ecologists range from school children, general public, resource managers, journalists, politicians to academic peers. Effective communication should be stimulating, but not deceptive to the audience/readership. Keep the message straight but do not oversimplify. Show the complexity but don’t use it as an excuse for our lack of understanding of ecological systems.

 

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