Margaret Palmer

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

Degree                                                  Professor
Position                                                Biology Department
Department                                          Department of Entomology
Organization                                        University of Maryland

margaret_pDescribe 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?

When I was an undergraduate at Emory University in the early 70’s, I worked in the lab of Don Shure who was doing food web work at Savannah River. I also took several courses from him and was absolutely taken with ecosystem modeling. He treated me like a graduate student, took me on field trips, and let me take seminars. He really opened my eyes to the complexity and excitement of ecology. Other folks included Bruce Coull who taught me how to write an NSF proposal, colleagues in my early years at the University of Maryland who helped me move from a focus on patterns to processes and underlying mechanisms (Art Popper, Gerry Borgia, Sandra Greer, Bob Denno …they span ecology, evolutionary behavior, neurobiology, and physical chemistry …so we talked about science in diverse ways!). Diana Wall invited me to join some SCOPE projects that got me to focus my work at global scales.

Don Shure taught me that one could love her work and get paid for it. Neither of my parents had finished college so I did not even know what an ‘Academic’ was when I went to college. But working in Don’s lab and a subsequent summer fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution helped me learn what research is all about. At WHOI, I learned independence, ingenuity as well as how to. I was hooked. Now, I’m a professor in two departments: Biology and Entomology at the University of Maryland.

I got my PhD in Oceanography in 1983 working with a marine ecologist (Bruce Coull) at the University of South Carolina and with a marine physicist (Giselher Gust). Learning physics and engineering challenged me. The engineering schools would not let me take their course because they saw me as a biologist. So I taught myself and spent time at USF working in Gust’s lab. My first faculty position was at a small liberal arts college in Indiana , where I leaned how to teach. However, I wanted to work with graduate students and make the transition from marine to freshwater systems. I wrote an NSF grant that allowed me to take a leave of absence from Wabash College to go to the University of Maryland for two years. After a year there (1987), they offered me a tenure track position; I resigned at Wabash and began at Maryland. I faced many challenges at first, there were not many women in the department, but I had a great Dept. Chair, Art Popper, who offered help and support. Other positions: Director of Biological Sciences at U of M; Director of Ecology Program, NSF; As well as many scientific advisory boards.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

  1. Think big. Ask questions that matter.
  2. Get as much quantitative training as possible. Take modeling courses,
    theory courses, courses in the physical or social sciences that are relevant to ecology.
  3. Collaborate early on. At least one of every student’s thesis or dissertation chapters should collaborative.
  4. READ!

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?

  1. Be positive. Do not sink to the level of only critiquing- suggest alternatives.
  2. Pay attention to the ‘audience’ give them time to absorb the information. Make sure they “get it”.
  3. Clarify in a very positive and subtle way that you are talking about ecological SCIENCE not environmentalism as a political movement.

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