Thomas Kitzberger (2009)

From a “Focus on Ecologists” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2009-2011.

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Full Name Thomas Kitzberger
Degree PhD
Job Position Jefe de Trabajos Practicos
Organization Universidad Nacional del Comahue
Department Departmento de Ecologia
Professional Affiliation Academic
Research Discipline Forest Ecology
Research Habitat Forest
Research Organism Terrestrial plants
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompasses I teach a yearly course in Bariloche on Ecology for the Biology major and serve as advisor to several graduate and undergraduate students.
What do you love most about your job? Working in the field, thinking in the forest.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution. Licenciado, Biology Universidad de Buenos Aires, Departamento de Biología.
PhD, Geography, University of Colorado (USA), Department of Geography.
Briefly describe your job path. 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.

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.

What challenges did you need to overcome? 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.

What’s one thing you hope to do in the future? Write a book on ecology of Patagonia
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? I work using tree ring to understand how forests have responded to environmental changes in the past and to learn what they will do in the future under anthropogenic changes.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice? My Dad is an engineer and my mom a housewife. They both were very supportive of my choice.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? Jorge 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.
Who currently inspires you? People like Dan Janzen or William Bond
What is the most valuable advice a mentor gave you or that you would offer to someone who’d like to do the same job as you? 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.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)? My love and respect for nature. My search for understanding nature.
How do you feel your work has contributed to society? very little, I hope to do better! maybe understanding the role of climate variability on the effects of some ecological phenomena that can be used to better predict responses of forests to to changes in climatic extremes
Award Name Fundación Bunge y Born Gold Medal Award 1999, Environmental Sciences
Year originally profiled. 1999

 

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