Dennis Knight (2004)

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

Degree                                                     Ph.D. 1964 (University of Wisconsin)
Position                                                   Retired, Professor
Department                                             Botany Department
Organization                                           University of Wyoming

dennis_knight_profileDescribe 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?

While a student at Augustana College in South Dakota, back in the 1950s, I came across Pierre Dansereau’s book, Biogeography (1957). It was very interesting to me. Prior to that time, I had not heard about ecology. Later I took a course in ecology, using the first edition of Eugene Odum’s book, Fundamentals of Ecology (1953). I liked the book, the subject matter, and the life style of the instructor, especially the field trips, bird watching, identifying plants, talking about natural resource issues, and collecting data in the field rather than the laboratory. By the time I was a senior, I also enjoyed reading articles in the ecological journals, especially in the area of plant ecology.

A Ph.D. degree was required and I managed to get that at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Botany Department. Part of the reason I was admitted at Wisconsin was the undergraduate research project that I had done on the plant ecology of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota and Ontario, where I had worked during the summers while in college. After Wisconsin, I decided to join the Peace Corps in Ecuador to further my interests in tropical ecology, which had developed at Wisconsin. Other opportunities to work in the tropics were scarce at that time. As a PCV I taught at an Ecuadorean university, led a field trip of students and faculty to the Galapagos Islands, traveled down the Amazon River, and learned about the Andes. My research focus for several years after going to Wyoming in 1964 was in the tropics, but soon I became as interested in the ecology of the Rocky Mountain region.

Through courses and conversations with my undergraduate advisor, it became apparent that my preferred career would be teaching at the college level.I had read Fairfield Osborn’s book, Our Plundered Planet (1950), and it seemed as though the need for ecologists could only increase. I retired in 2001 after 35 years on the University of Wyoming faculty.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

Pursue a career that interests you so much you that you won’t mind working some nights and weekends without extra compensation, and develop skills that not everyone has and which will appeal to future employers. Also, read widely in your chosen field, outside your primary research interests, and demonstrate that you have the potential for becoming a good colleague. Finally, browse the journals and books of your library to find out what interests you the most, and then be flexible enough to pursue new interests as your career develops.

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