Jack Williams

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

Degree                                       Ph.D.
Position                                     Assistant Professor
Department                               Geography Department
Organization                             University of Wisconsin – Madison

jwilliamsDr. Williams and his colleagues Drs. Bryan Shuman and Thompson Webb III are the 2004 recipients of the William S. Cooper Award, for their 2001 paper, “Dissimilarity analyses of Late-Quaternary vegetation and climate in eastern North America”, published in Ecology 82:3346-3362. The Cooper Award is made annually for an outstanding contribution in geobotany, physiographic ecology, plant succession, or the distribution of organisms along environmental gradients.

I’ve always been interested in ecology, but didn’t develop a serious research interest in ecological topics until I started graduate school. As a matter of fact, both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in the geosciences, but during graduate school I really became interested in understanding vegetation dynamics and vegetation-climate interactions at timescales (100-100,000 yr) that are long for ecologists and short for geologists. So a lot of the methodology is borrowed from geology (e.g. coring lakes, identifying fossil plant remains, establishing chronologies), but the key questions are fundamentally ecological in nature: what is the nature and rate of plant community and ecosystem responses to climate change? What are the important feedbacks between coupled atmosphere-biosphere systems? I’m fortunate to have a fairly broad training, because a critical research need now is to understand how the biosphere operates as one component of the earth system. Ecologists and Quaternary scientists each have much to offer here.

My most influential guide into ecology was Tom Webb, my dissertation advisor. I left college knowing that I wanted to continue working in the sciences, and that I wanted to do work relevant to current environmental and societal issues, but unsure just how to apply my undergraduate degree in geology towards these goals. Tom is also broadly trained — was trained in a meteorology department, is housed in a geosciences department, and has made a career of studying the spatial and temporal patterns of late-Quaternary vegetation and climate dynamics. I didn’t know much about ecology at that point, so a lot of my graduate education was spent catching up on ecological theory and practice, with a heavy emphasis on the paleoecology. My postdoc at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis allowed me to continue my arc of ecological training by exposing me to an incredibly diverse and wide range of ecologists and ecological questions. I couldn’t have asked for a better finishing school — and at the same time, I was able to contribute a relatively long-term and synoptic perspective to NCEAS.

I’m about to start at a position as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison — but, interestingly enough, in the geography department. It will be a good home to pursue my multidisciplinary research — geography departments have a good tradition of supporting cross-cutting research interests.

Not sure what advice I have for students, since my own experiences represent a sample size of one! Much depends on whether they plan to pursue a career in the sciences or at the science/policy, science/education, or ecosystem management nexuses. If they’re still deciding on a career, I recommend contacting established professionals to ask them how they got their start and the training they had, or wish they had. Meetings like ESA are a great place to do this, or at least learn who’s out there.

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