What's the most fun part of being an ecologist?

The most fun part for me is the collaboration. I really enjoy seeing how the various disciplines within and outside ecology contribute and work together. I really like facilitating interdisciplinary research collaboration as well.

What challenges have you faced in the field of STEM?

I've had very supportive mentors, colleagues, and family throughout my career. They all helped me navigate challenges - in particular, my parents and my husband, Jay Zarnetske (environmental hydrologist and associate professor at MSU). Jay and I have navigated a dual-career path since we applied to graduate schools. What's been most challenging for me is managing the demands of academia and tenure while having twin children and maintaining a work-life balance with my family. It's a constant pressure and responsibility that changes all the time. I fortunately was able to extend my tenure clock by a year because of the birth of my children. But having two at once was (and still is) quite challenging. In the U.S., the parental leave time is not sufficient.

Additionally, one of the biggest challenges with academia in particular is that a lot of work seems never-ending. It's a constant cycle, and it's rare to have time to truly celebrate accomplishments before diving into the next deadline or portion of a project. After living in France for a year on sabbatical, I have a new appreciation for the benefits of limiting work to business hours and have been trying to stick with that. It's also important to learn how to say 'no' to work requests. I'm still working on that.

Are you confident that the scientific community will be able to solve the world's biggest ecological issues?

I'm confident that scientists can solve ecological issues. We have a great amount of innovation and capacity to understand and provide the best available science that society needs. But the biggest hurdles to progress are the slow pace of adopting more sustainable and equitable solutions; the lack of funding for science and science education, especially focused on global changes including climate change); and the need for more people at the science-policy interface, in science communication, and applying science to action.

These are huge challenges to overcome and we're running out of time as ecological issues worsen. We need more people, funding, outreach, and commitment to collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaborations across STEAM, engaging policymakers, corporations, and organizations, and partnering with diverse communities are all essential in solving the world's biggest ecological issues.

What do you hope to do in your field in the future? What areas of research would you like to see more investment in the future and why?

I've developed a spatial and community ecology research program that connects experimental work with observed patterns across scales, but I want to expand my research to address solutions more directly. I feel most of the difference I've made thus far has been by training the next generation of scientists and advancing fundamental understanding of the consequences of climate change, environmental feedbacks, and biotic interactions on ecology. I'm interested in working directly with other sectors, including energy, policy, governance, and indigenous peoples and local communities. I think there's a huge amount that can be gained by applying the science we have to adapt to and mitigate climate change and lessen the biodiversity crisis.

We, as a scientific community, have a lot of science showing that climate change and land use change impacts can be pretty massive and, in many cases, detrimental to ecological systems and their services. It's extremely urgent that we stop emissions and habitat destruction to halt further climate change and biodiversity loss. To achieve this, we need more science to action—more work that takes the research and applies it to help solve the climate and biodiversity crises.

More investment in interdisciplinary research and inclusion of diverse communities and perspectives is essential. Every time I've engaged with people outside my field and with different perspectives, I've learned so much. It's also changed my perspective about what is possible. It's given me more hope that we can move forward, together, in an innovative and positive way.

Read the story in NEON.