How did you become an environmental biologist?
I was raised in an environmentally conscious family. Even as a kid, I knew what I wanted to do. I thought I would become an environmental attorney because I liked to argue. In the 8th grade, I actually tried to get the yearbook to use “oceanological environmental lawyer” as a caption for my yearbook photo. They said it was too long to fit!
Where did you go to school?
By the time I went to UC San Diego as an undergraduate, I enrolled as a political science major. But as a sophomore, I took a class for non-science majors called “Ecology and Man” that changed my life. The first class had such an impact on me I actually sprinted to the registrar’s office to change my major.
What got you interested in rainforest diversity?
The last quarter of my undergraduate work was spent in a tropical biology field course. I was immersed in the rainforest in Costa Rica. This was an era when many people were discussing the fate of the world’s rainforests. I lived in a forest village for three months. I witnessed a community struggle with subsistence farming and fishing. That was my introduction to an appreciation of biological diversity even though it was before the phrase was coined. I loved the rainforest because of the diversity of life there.
Have you spent a lot of time in the field?
After the Costa Rican rainforest experience, I got a Masters in the Yale School of Forestry and spent a summer in the field in Northeastern Argentina. It's a place where one percent of the land produces 70% of the timber resources. In the 1990s, I pursued a Ph.D that took me to the Amazon basin. There, I examined how the history of river system formations influenced the origin of biodiversity. Now I focus my efforts in the marine realm.
How do the resources of the Academy make a difference in the work you do?
At the California Academy of Sciences we have the most reliable records of biodiversity on earth—our biological specimen collections. Our collections tell us what species lived where on the planet. It's an amazing and irreplaceable historical record.
How are the collections being put to use?
One of the questions we ask is how certain species and ecosystems are going to shift with the influence of climate change. We take the data from our collections and we map it. We model the distributions of the habitat requirements for a given species in a climate-altered future. We have found that if we do nothing to limit greenhouse gas emissions today, major shifts in species distributions are predicted. However, scenarios of reduced greenhouse gas emissions show much less impact on the natural world. This implies we can still avoid the worst effects of climate change on biodiversity if we act now to reduce greenhouse gases.
We've talked a lot about the Academy's role in research. What difference can the Academy make to a visitor just off the street?
There's never been a more important time than today for every citizen to deepen their understanding of biodiversity. Each of us utterly depends on biodiversity, but that dependence is almost invisible to us because it is all we've ever known. A real or virtual visit to the Academy will deepen their connection to the natural world at a time when that world is changing at an unparalleled rate.