Richard B. Root (2009)

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

Full Name Richard B. Root
Degree PhD
Job Position Professor of Ecology
Organization Cornell University
Department Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Professional Affiliation Academic
Briefly describe your job path. I entered the University of Michigan sticking to my love for ecology. I went directly to Berkeley after finishing at Ann Arbor. I carried out the field work for my dissertation at the Hastings Natural History Reservation in the Coast Range of California where two mentors helped me through the difficult initial stages: John Davis, who directed the Reservation, and Jimmie Bell, a local rancher.

After finishing graduate school I moved directly to Cornell where I was hired as an Assistant Professor of Insect Ecology in the Department of Entomology. After a few years, I was given a joint appointment in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I moved up through the ranks at Cornell to where I am currently Professor of Ecology. With Cornell as a base I have been able to widen my experience on leaves from campus. These include a year as a member of the Field Staff of the Rockefeller Foundation with headquarters in Cali, Colombia; a year with Sir Richard Southwood at Oxford University; a return to the Hastings Reservation to work on lygaeid bugs; and visiting professorships at the Bodega Marine Laboratory and at the University of Washington. I have a long affiliation with the Archbold Biological Station in Florida and I am currently a Trustee of the Archbold Expeditions Foundation.

What challenges did you need to overcome? I sought ecology on my own. Many of my teachers and friends tried to discourage me from going into ecology, a topic which seemed rather strange to them.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? I wanted to be an ecologist from an early age. When adults asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I was frustrated because I did not know of a profession that dealt with my interests. I told people that I wanted to understand how the “woods works”. It was a relief when I discovered the word “ecology” because it finally gave identity to what I wanted to do. I can remember sitting alone in the woods and wondering how things interacted with each other I must have been 10 or 12 years old at this time.

My grandfather, a farmer, was one of the best ecologists I have ever encountered. I often worked with him, which gave us ample opportunity to talk. I learned the lore that 3 generations of Roots had gained from working the same ground. The importance of historical events was demonstrated at every turn and experimentation was just a normal part of my grandfather’s style of farming.
Another important influence was Harold Hartley, a communist poet who supported himself as a carpenter. Harold was an enthusiastic amateur who used his observations of birds to inspire ideas on a range of subjects. I spent many days with Harold during which I experienced the joys of the intellectual life
The third person to foster my interest in ecology was Arthur Sinclair, who taught the natural history and conservation merit badges at the Howell Reservation belonging to the Boy Scouts of America. When I was 16 I became his assistant and I spent two wonderful summers taking groups out to observe birds, reptiles, insects, plants, geological formations, and forestry plots. Sinclair taught me to have a broad interest in nature and how to look deeply.

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? 1. Start any new investigation by making extensive observations on your study system or taxon. Discipline your observations by writing out notes. Maintain a journal where you put down your insights, worries, etc.
2. Know enough about the fundamental issues to design a study that will be of broad significance but you also need to stay “open” to what Nature is telling you.
Award Name Eugene P. Odum Award
Year originally profiled. 2004


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