Dennis H. Knight (2009)

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


Full Name Dennis H. Knight
Degree PhD
Job Position Professor, Retired
Organization University of Wyoming
Department Botany Department
Professional Affiliation Academic
Research Discipline Ecosystem Ecology, Forest Ecology, Landscape Ecology, Vegetation Ecology
Research Habitat Forest, Grassland, Montane, Riparian
Research Organism Terrestrial plants
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompasses Before I retired, I taught courses in ecology and forest management, and I guided students interested in the analysis of terrestrial ecosystems.
What do you love most about your job? The freedom to design my own research program and select the topics that I would emphasize in my classes. Also, being paid to read the scientific literature in my field of interest.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution. BA in Biology at Augustana College (South Dakota)
PhD in Botany, University of Wisconsin at Madison
Briefly describe your job path. I learned that a Ph.D. would be helpful for a faculty position in academia 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 challenges did you need to overcome? Understanding the chemistry, physics and math that I needed for the ecosystem research that I wanted to do. Usually, my students had a better background in this area than I did.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future? Spend more of my time bridging the gap between the results of ecological science and the people interested in environmental protection or charged with managing ecosystems.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? Usually as an ecologist, now that more people know what that means. Sometimes as a botanist with special interests in native plants.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice? I was the first in my extended family to attend college. My parents seemed to like the idea that I might become a college teacher.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? 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.
Who currently inspires you? Ecologists who are knowledgeable and confident enough to speak out boldly on complex issues that are highly relevant to developing a sustainable way of living on earth.
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? 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.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)? As a college teacher who helped students achieve their professional goals, fostered substantive research, and helped enable critical thinking about the application of science to sustainable land management.
How do you feel your work has contributed to society? That’s for someone else to judge.
Year originally profiled. 2007
Year profile was last updated. 2009


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