Steward Pickett

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

Degree                                      Ph.D.
Position                                    Senior Scientist
Organization                            Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY

stewickett_profileSteward Pickett grew up with a general fascination with the natural world, fueled by books his librarian mother would bring home for him to read. He remembers reading about astronomers, and thinking, “Oh, I want to be one of those!” and remembers feeling the same reaction when learning about geology and many other branches of science.

As a child, Steward spent summers in Louisville, Kentucky, at a Boy Scout camp run by his father. Steward described himself as a ‘free agent’ at the camp, able to explore the woods by himself. “I didn’t really know what I was seeing, but I knew it was neat. This coincided with my mom bringing home a book on ecology. That solidified it; I knew what I wanted to do.”

“It was great to make that decision at such an early age. The term ‘ecology’ wasn’t well-known yet, and I found it fun to be in charge of explaining what it meant. My choice to study ecology had a lot to do with my family being supportive of academic and professional careers,” adds Steward.

Steward knew from the start that he was most interested in plants, so he majored in botany as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. From junior high through college he was lucky to have great tutors and mentors who encouraged his interests in ecology. “I figured out what I wanted and marched right through. All the pieces fell into place, and immediately after graduate school I became a professor.”

While Steward enjoys his time working with students and academic faculty, he feels strongly that kids shouldn’t have the impression that the only honorable profession in ecology is to be a professor. In fact, he is involved currently in a number of different types of projects that enable him to travel, to conduct field experiments, to write scientific articles, and to communicate his findings to members of the scientific community throughout the world.

All of Steward’s research focuses on patterns of variation in habitat and ecological communities on a variety of scales, ranging from forest gaps, desert patches, and landscape level processes. In other words, he’s asking why we see so many different types of habitat, like forests and grasslands and deserts, and wants to understand what determines the variation in habitats across a given geographical area.

As principal investigator for the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research project in Baltimore, Steward researches how all the different habitats in the Baltimore watershed, urban areas, forested patches, streams, rivers, and more, are affected by environmental changes. Social and economic factors are responsible for much of the heterogeneity or patchiness in urban ecosystems, and the Baltimore watershed is a prime location to study these issues.

This watershed approach to ecological research has led to collaboration with scientists in South Africa on a project in Kruger National Park. Steward and this team are investigating how relatively narrow wetland areas alongside rivers in the Kruger watershed interact with systems farther along the rivers, both upstream and downstream, as well as their interactions with neighboring upland areas. This project is also designed to help understand how animals, fire, water, and plant species move between the upland areas and the rest of the Park, and to describe how human management decisions influence these movements. Researchers on both sides of the Atlantic are looking forward to setting up student exchanges between Baltimore and Kruger so young scientists can benefit from this partnership as well.

One of Steward’s main professional roles is to communicate information about ecology, both within the scientific community and to a larger public audience. Writing a column for his local newspaper allows Steward to reach a whole group of people who are not likely to read about his findings in a scientific journal. “Communication is a really important part of science, and students should do whatever they can to develop these skills. Not everyone can do everything well, but you really need to find some ways to communicate with which you’re comfortable and effective.”

Steward has one main bit of advice for anyone interested in a career in ecology: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When I was a university professor, students seemed to assume they had to gather knowledge on their own. Ecology is something done by a community of people. The freer you are in communicating with that community, the more fun you’re going to have, and the more you’re going to learn.”

When thinking about his own life as an ecologist, Steward is enthusiastic. “One of the things that amazes me most about my ecological career is that I have been places on this planet that I never imagined I would see. It’s one thing to read about rain forests and other ecosystems, but once you actually see them, all that stuff you’ve been reading really clicks in. I found that I may have a framework, but understanding really falls together once I see things myself.”

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