Daniel Charles Laughlin

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


Full Name Daniel Charles Laughlin
Degree Ph.D. 2009 (Northern Arizona University)
Job Position Plant Ecology Research Specialist
Organization Northern Arizona University
Department Ecological Restoration Institute
Professional Affiliation Academic
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompasses I am a research ecologist at the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU where I study the factors that control plant community assembly and its consequences on ecosystem processes. I am very interested in community responses to ecological restoration projects, soil gradients, and climate change. In the summer, I get to explore the forests of the Southwest, and during the semesters I analyze data, write papers, and teach graduate courses in ecology and statistics.
What do you love most about your job? It is a gift to be able to spend my days trying to understand the natural world. Work feels more like play, and when I do go play in the forests I often think about my work! I enjoy making decisions about hypotheses based on empirical data. Finally, reporting my results in journals and meeting other scientists at conferences is very rewarding.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution. B.S. Biology. Plant Biology. Calvin College.
Graduate Certificate, Applied Statistics. Northern Arizona University.
M.S. Ecology. Plant Ecology. Penn State University.
Ph.D. Forest Science. Plant ecology. Northern Arizona University.
Briefly describe your job path. I would like to find a home in a productive faculty of quantitative ecologists where I can teach undergraduate and graduate students about plant ecology and statistics and continue my research program in plant strategies, community assembly, and ecosystem processes.
What challenges did you need to overcome? The biggest challenge for me was to come to terms with statistical analyses. Early in my career, I avoided statistics. But as time progressed, I began to understand their necessity, and now I really enjoy data analysis, especially complex multivariate analyses. This change has been instrumental to me as I pursued a career in ecology, so I try to share my enjoyment of data analysis with my peers as often as possible.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future? I’d like to develop and evaluate a model of plant community assembly that has high predictive power and that can be used to understand how global change will influence the assembly process and ecosystem functioning.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? I first tell them that I am an ecologist and that I study forests and grasslands. If they seem at all interested, I emphasize my interest in old-growth forests and wildfires, since these topics are often popular. I definitely neglect to mention my interest in structural equation modeling, since that is a sure conversation killer!
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice? My father teaches thermodynamics and magnetism at Carnegie Mellon University and my mother worked for many years as an adoption agency social worker. They have both been very supportive of my career choice, and I have been touched by how they have come to defend the environment and vote accordingly.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? My father continues to inspire me as a scientist and is a model professor (he maintains 10 PhD students and post-docs regularly while never neglecting his teaching). Dave Warners (Calvin College) sparked my interest in plants, and Chris Uhl (Penn State) encouraged me to follow my passions. My professors at NAU, especially Margaret Moore, continue to inspire me to produce quality research and to be a caring, influential teacher.
Who currently inspires you? Many ecologists come to mind. But the one who rises to the top is Jim Grace, who has inspired me to embrace complexity in the analysis of natural systems.
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? Paul Keddy advised me to read as many classic and new ecology books as possible. Though papers are very important to keep up to date within a subject, it is important to have a broad perspective and to read the many syntheses that older ecologists have given to us. Even though ecology is a relatively young science, much work has been accomplished and young ecologists should be aware of what has already been discovered.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)? My career has only begun, so there is not much to remember! But I hope that people would remember my efforts to utilize a multivariate approach to the study of natural systems and I hope to inspire a new generation of ecologists.
How do you feel your work has contributed to society? I am striving to understand how plant communities will respond to novel ecosystem stressors such as climate and land use changes. Land managers need this information in order to make management plans, so I hope that my research will continue to influence federal land management agencies.
Award Name Braun Award and Pielou Award
Year originally profiled. 2009
ESA Award E. Lucy Braun Award
Year profile was last updated. 2010



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