Deborah Ulinski Potter, Ph.D.
Research Assistant Professor of Biology
University of New Mexico
What is an ecologist?
An ecologist studies the interactions between organisms and their past, present, and future environments. This information helps solve environmental problems such as habitat damage and loss, species extinction, global climate change, deforestation, and ozone layer depletion. Mysteries surrounding the spread of diseases such as Hanta virus and Lyme disease have been unraveled by ecologists. Other studies concern natural disturbances such as fire, drought, flooding, and insect outbreaks. Ecologists also study the flow of energy and the cycling of nutrients. There is a close link between ecology and evolution: the abundance and distribution of organisms depends on both their environment and evolutionary history. One example of an evolutionary study is the interaction between some flowering plants and their insect pollinators.
Ecology includes the physiological response of individuals, population structures and dynamics, interactions among species of plants and animals, community organization, and ecosystem and landscape ecology. Subspecialties focus on soil ecology, aquatic ecology or limnology, marine biology or oceanography, terrestrial ecology, paleoecology (e.g., tree rings and pack rat middens), and animal behavior such as the mating, feeding, and singing of birds. There are also theoretical and statistical ecologists.
What makes a good ecologist?
Good ecologists are curious about the past and inspired by visions of the future. They are capable of critical thinking and develop their observation skills. Ecologists often either love the outdoors or are drawn to their profession by social responsibility and an environmental ethic. An ecologist must have good communication, mathematical, biological, and physical science skills and be able to work as a team member to solve problems. Writing skills are essential for getting project funds and for publishing exciting results. Oral presentations are important to communicate results and provide testimony to legislators and other decision-makers.
The studies of some ecologists bring them to desolate and remote areas, such as wilderness areas of Alaska or Antarctica. These beautiful outdoors environments often have a special appeal that compensates for the lack of modern conveniences. Some field work can be strenuous and in extreme weather conditions that demand hardy and healthy individuals. Other work environments include traditional laboratories, offices, computer pods for mathematical modeling, and work stations for mapping with geographic information system technology.
What is life as an ecologist like?
Ecologists address their hypotheses by observing and describing organisms in their natural habitats or under experimental conditions. They may travel to exciting places like coral reefs, tropical forests, mountains, deserts, and lakes or streams. In addition to collecting field samples of soil, water, air, and other physical factors, the ecologist may sample animal or plant populations. The collected samples are then brought into the laboratory to be identified, cataloged, and further studied. Field and laboratory data are usually entered into a computer for analysis. After analyzing the data, an ecologist may prepare reports and present talks at scientific meetings. Ecologists often achieve career satisfaction by helping us all to better understand and protect Earth’s limited resources.
How do I become an ecologist?
Ecology is a broad field that can accommodate many interests. To become an ecologist, you should take as much math and science in high school as possible. Be sure to study biology, chemistry, physics, and math such as trigonometry, algebra, and calculus. In addition to general ecology, your undergraduate education should include environmental studies, biological sciences, chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics. Courses in areas of specialization can be taken in graduate school to obtain M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. Ecologists also benefit from a broad undergraduate background that can include geology, natural resource policy, engineering, geography, computer science, and liberal arts.
What/where are the jobs?
Ecologists work in both research positions and applied areas such as enforcement of environmental laws, forestry and range management, or restoration ecology. Employers include a variety of federal agencies such as the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, (Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management) and the Environmental Protection Agency. State governments also hire ecologists, and New Mexico offers jobs as environmental associates, specialists and scientists, environmentalists, and experts in the fields of water, air, and hazardous waste management. Local governments, such as Albuquerque’s Environmental Heath Department, and environmental consulting firms also provide career opportunities.
Universities are great places to conduct ecological research and to inspire new students. Studies of long-term ecological changes include two sites in New Mexico that are part of a national network funded by the National Science Foundation. NMSU’s Jornada site near Las Cruces explores the causes of desertification in semi-arid lands. UNM’s Sevilleta site near Socorro encompasses themes of biodiversity, the role of water in ecosystem processes, carbon cycling, land use, and the effects of climate change.