Pamela Matson

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

Degree                                                      Ph.D. 1984 (Oregon State University)
Position                                                    Dean
Department                                              School of Earth Sciences
Organization                                            Stanford University

pmatsonDescribe 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?

The route to my current position was much more a zig-zag than straight line….but each position that I’ve held has been exciting and worthwhile. My career path was not planned!

As a child, I loved plants, animals, and forests. My grandmother, who lived on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, took me picking flowers in forests every spring, and I’ve loved spring ephemerals ever since. I knew by high school that I wanted to study biology, although I also loved English and journalism. In college, the chair of the Biology Department, Dr. Mark Fay, was an amazingly engaging botany teacher, and his courses reinforced my preference.

When I graduated from college, I was more an old-time naturalist than an ecologist, and of course there were no jobs! After managing a music store for a year or so, I began a Masters in Environmental Science at Indiana University with plans to work in government or the corporate world, but along the way I found ecosystem ecology (taught by my most important mentor, Peter Vitousek) and research, and I decided to go on to a Ph.D. in forest ecology.

After completing the Ph.D. and a postdoc, I expected an academic career—that was the only option that I knew. I was lucky, though, to be recommended for a research scientist position at one of the NASA research centers, and I ended up with a choice between an academic and research lab position.

Choosing the research lab option is, in hindsight, the best decision I ever made. At the time, though, it was far from clear that it was the right choice. Lots of people warned me against it, saying that I would never get to travel and would not be able to choose my own research projects. In fact, it was a perfect match – I was an ecologist in an Earth System Science division, working with geographers, atmospheric scientists, meteorologists and geochemists, and carrying out research in many different places, including the Amazon Basin.

In 1992 I accepted a position at UC Berkeley as a tenured Professor. After five wonderful years at UC Berkeley, I moved to Stanford, where some of my closest colleagues already worked. My position was explicitly interdisciplinary, with half in the Center for Environmental Science and Policy and half in the School of Earth Sciences. In 2002, I was asked to become Dean of the School of Earth Sciences.

What key advice would you offer a student today?
Keep your eyes open for interesting opportunities that go beyond the expected. Explore, and don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith. When considering a position, ask for what you want and need, but don’t expect that you’ll get everything! As things change in your life (e.g., kids), once again, ask for what you need.

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
The best way to reach broad audiences is to engage them in the story of your research (or whatever topic). Tell it like a story, and engage your listeners with your enthusiasm and passion for the topic. And don’t forget — prepare, prepare, prepare! Identify your main points and organize them in a way that makes them easy to remember. Practice, and whenever you can, take advantage of training opportunities to learn and improve. Finally, take every opportunity to speak.

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