Margaret Lowman

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

Degree                              Ph.D. 1982 (University of Sydney)
Position                            Director & Professor
Department                      Environmental Initiatives & Biology and Environmental Studies
Organization                    New College of Florida

ESA Eugene P. Odum Award for 2002

margaret_lowman_profileWhen did you become interested in ecology?

I became interested in ecology at about the age of 3, collecting wildflowers and bird nests in my back yard of upstate New York where I grew up. Nature was my sanctuary, and I always wanted to figure out its secrets. In fifth grade I won second prize in the New York State science fair with my native herbarium collection, sandwiched in among many boys with their complex chemistry and physics experiments. It was a great moment and probably challenged me to pursue ecology as a woman scientist with a strength in plant ecology.

Describe your route to a career in (or using) ecology.  Who influenced you?  What challenges did you need to overcome? What was your training, and what positions have you held?

  • BA Williams College with major in Biology and Environmental Studies
  • MSc Aberdeen University in Ecology
  • PHD Sydney University in Botany
  • Executive Management at Dartmouth – Tuck School of Business

My heroes in youth were Rachel Carson and Harriet Tubman. Ms. Carson alerted the public to her scientific findings, something that is so important for young scientists to prioritize; and Harriet Tubman navigated up and down the east coast using moss on tree trunks, a reminder to me as a youth that knowledge of plants and ecosystems have so many practical applications to our everyday lives. She was a great naturalist to me in her practical knowledge of how to use the forest wisely. I never had a female biology professor, so that loss in my training motivates me to work with young women students; this balance seems to be greatly improving in this generation as compared to my situation in the 1960s and 1970s. My best mentor in field biology was the late John Trott, director of the first natural science camp for young people in North America.

John started Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies in the 1960s, with the blessing of the Audubon Society and others, and I was privileged to attend as a camper and then as a staff person. John really taught an appreciation for natural ecosystems, as well as a sense of curiosity to study plants and animals and the dynamics of ecosystems. The graduates of that summer camp program in West Virginia now read as a Who’s Who in American conservation, so great was his legacy at this critical time in the youth of many of us who were taught by him. I have been fortunate in my career to work with great scientists and there are many I admire: Dwight Billings, Patrice Morrow, Peter Ashton,Tom Lovejoy, Francis Halle, Hal Heatwole, Mark Hunter, Jack Schultz, Joe Connell and others. In my book, Life in the Treetops, I pay tribute-through-story to Joe Connell for his enthusiasm and dedication to our rain forest species diversity studies; and also to Robin Foster for his field prowess in tropical botany, as well as other ecologists who have greatly influenced me.

I became, perhaps fortuitously, a pioneer in canopy biology specializing in insect-plant interactions and have written over 70 peer-reviewed publications on that topic. I have recently moved from my long-held post as chief scientist for Selby Botanical Gardens to its executive director. Part of my reason for this change was a recognition of the importance of education. I believe that research scientists have two important additional tasks other than data processing and discovery: to seek to use their results for conservation, and to always integrate some component of their research into education of our youth. I hope that in my Directorship I can influence our staff and other young scientists to prioritize these two issues. I continue to work on canopy ecology projects, oversee epiphyte research, and work through New College of Florida on both conservation and education-related ecological outreach.

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