🏆Eminent Ecologist 2023: Katharine Suding


The Journal of Ecology Editors are delighted to announce that Katharine Suding is our Eminent Ecologist award recipient for 2023!

In recognition of her work, we asked Katharine to put together a virtual issue of some of her key contributions to the journal. Katharine was interviewed by Executive Editor Richard Bardgett, about her career to date, her motivation for focusing on ‘usable science’, and possible ways to encourage interest in the natural environment for future generations. Katharine has also written this blog post which introduces some of the key conceptual themes that underpin her body of work:

It is an incredible honor to be elected by the Journal of Ecology to be its Eminent Ecologist in 2023. When I received the notification, my first feeling was surprise and lots of head scratching – I so admire the other ecologists that have received this honor, but me? I have always regarded Journal of Ecology as a favorite journal, and yes, 17 papers found homes at the Journal, including my very first as a PhD student, and one currently in press. From disbelief flowed gratitude – for those incredibly kind and helpful reviews on my first paper, to the extremely talented group of students, postdocs, and collaborators who were the genius behind these papers, to the editors and staff at the journal to prepare the work to be shared with the larger world of ecology. Thank you so much.

And now with a large dose of humility, I sit at a desk in the hallway of our local community college where I drive my daughter every Monday so she can take a course in wildlife management, and introduce this virtual issue. I’ll focus on some conceptual themes that underpin this body of work, but also introduce some key collaborators and talk a little bit about my approach to building teams, mentoring, and finding joy in science.

Finding a research vision

It is incredible to think that — in less than decade – ecologists are expected to transition from figuring out how to design a first experiment in graduate school to conducting “pioneering” work in our discipline. The first paper in this special issue (Suding and Goldberg 1999) was the first one I ever wrote. It started out with the very pragmatic goal of surveying a range of potential field sites. I had come to University of Michigan feeling very fortunate (it was the only graduate program I was accepted into) but also a bit out of my element, having grown up in the Colorado West and feeling most comfortable with knee-high grasslands and wide-open vistas. So I did what made sense to no one but me: I set out to find an herbaceous system to study in largely forested SE Michigan, considering fens, oak openings, and tallgrass prairies along railroad verges. It turned out that comparing across systems allowed me to ask questions about interaction strength across environment gradients and started my fascination with seeds and seedling recruitment. The process of planning and writing Suding and Goldberg (1999) also drove home how lucky I was to work with my graduate advisor and co-author, Deborah Goldberg. She showed me how to critically write (and critically think… they are so interconnected!) with the big picture in mind. This first study also set me up well to dive into grasslands more deeply for the rest of my dissertation work. I still try to follow that example when new students join my group – go broad, explore – as a start to dissertation work.

Broad experiences and amazing people help fuel a research trajectory. Field work with my dad, a geologist, in the Nevada Great Basin (left). With my dissertation advisor, Deborah Goldberg (middle), after MacArthur Award Ceremony at Ecological Society of America Conference. Full circle to my daughter helping with field sampling apple trees as part of the Boulder Apple Tree Project (right).

While it might seem unintuitive that a diversification strategy is a good way to hone a research vision, that is indeed what happened during my time as a postdoc. After I finished my PhD, my husband and I headed back to Colorado, where he started medical school at the University of Colorado, and I went looking for a postdoc. At the time, community ecology was largely absent from CU, so I took an octopus strategy, knocking on many doors on campus and initiating collaborations far afield. A series of papers in this virtual issue resulted, ranging from a project in France on functional traits (Gross et al 2007), work with the very gracious ecosystem ecologists at CU (Meier et al 2008), and synthesis of nitrogen fertilization experiments stemming from both Niwot Ridge and Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research Programs (Cleland et al 2011). At the time, this strategy felt very uncertain and risky. With hindsight, it was hugely beneficial. The time provided opportunities to contribute to fields developing rapidly outside of the US (functional traits), learn the basics of science that was not a core of my graduate training (nutrient cycling, soil microbes) and it opened windows on collaborative approaches to science (the LTER Network). These elements provided a strong foundation that I have been building on ever since.

After my husband received his medical degree, I joined University of California Irvine for my first faculty position (and with quite some luck in the American residency match system). Very unintentionally, the themes that formed the tentacles of my octopus of a postdoc – functional traits, environmental gradients, density dependence, and plant-soil feedbacks – formed a research program as I entered the professoriate world. It’s a daunting transition to be expected to lead a group and identify transformative questions to pursue. The more intuitive path for me was to continue to pursue what you really love, know what you can advise, encourage people in your group to bring in their own expertise, and then explore in collaboration.

Many papers during my time at UC Irvine and then when I moved to UC Berkeley (coinciding with my husband finishing residency; it’s always a balance) followed this path. A paper with one of my first graduate students, Marko Spasojevic, focused on functional traits across environmental gradients at Niwot Ridge (Spasojevic and Suding 2012). It tested similar ideas as the Suding and Goldberg (1999) paper, adding functional traits to infer mechanisms of interaction strength and coexistence. This theme was continued by Brad Butterfield as a postdoc at Berkeley (Butterfield and Suding 2013), but this time in California grasslands and extending to effects on ecosystems services. Elsa Cleland was one of the first postdocs in my group, furthering a great collaboration on using functional traits to generalize nitrogen fertilization effects across LTER sites (Cleland et al 2011). Marko is now a professor at UC Riverside, Brad at Northern Arizona University, and Elsa at University of California San Diego.

Niwot Ridge was my first summer field research experience, as an undergrad back home from Williams College, and has been a focus of research projects since my time as a postdoc. Marko Spasojevic collecting trait samples at Niwot Ridge Long-term Ecological Research site as a graduate student (left) and me leading a field tour a decade later after joining CU to lead the Niwot LTER program (right). It is the subject of Spasojevic and Suding (2012), Farrer et al (2015) and Bueno de Mesquita et al (2021) in this virtual issue, as well as forthcoming OldFather et al (in press, Journal of Ecology). As part of the LTER network, it also facilitated collaboration with people that became important mentors, allowed leadership opportunities, and opened the door on the importance of cross-site data synthesis (e.g., Cleland et al 2011 in this virtual issue).  

Perhaps the next set of papers reflect how the various tenacles of investigation can coalesce around a more unified research vision. During the last decade+ it has become clear that global change – such as warming, drought, and nitrogen pollution – is indeed not just a threat but a reality in all the systems I study. Certainly, those external factors were affecting species directly. Yet they also seemed to have a sizeable impact on the intricate network of interactions within ecological communities. My research group and I started to conduct experiments to tease these effects apart and get a better idea for how global change responses might be mediated through changed species interactions. For instance, a postdoc in my group, Emily Farrer, using an experiment manipulating snow, nitrogen and temperature in alpine tundra, demonstrated how indirect effects via changes in the abundance of two dominant alpine plants accumulated to affect biodiversity more strongly than direct effects of the global change manipulations (Farrer et al 2015). Another postdoc, Erica Spotswood, led a multi-species invasion experiment across a gradient in soil moisture in California grasslands, showing the importance of both density-dependent and density-independent mechanisms in invasion (Spotswood et al 2017). Yet another postdoc, Josh Grinath, utilized a long-term experiment excluding Kangaroo Rats in the Carrizo Plains to demonstrate the effect of rainfall on grassland composition was mediated by seed predation and burrowing effects on litter accumulation (Grinath et al 2018). Emily is now a professor at Tulane, Erica an ecologist at Second Nature, and Josh a professor at Idaho State University.

This period was also marked by a fascination of non-linear dynamics caused by feedbacks, often between plant species and soil resources or soil biota. For instance, a meta-analysis about invasive species and plant-soil feedbacks (Suding et al 2013) included two postdocs (Claudia Stein and Stan Harpole) focused on whether invasion was characterized by positive frequency dependence. We were also confronted by the expanding complexity of climate effects, finding the importance of lagged climate effects (Grinath et al 2018, Dudney et al 2017), decoupling across climate variables (Bueno de Mesquita et al 2021), and spatial synchrony (Walter et al 2020). Claudia is now a professor at Auburn University, Stan heads a research group at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), and Cliff Bueno de Mesquita is a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. It was also a period that marked my return to University of Colorado Boulder to try my hand at leading the NWT research program (and to simplify the busy life of call across multiple hospitals for my husband).

On sticking with a single research focus or going broad

As an assistant professor, I was told by a Dean that he wouldn’t typically recommend the myriad of topics I had gotten myself into but “clearly I multitask well.” I often wonder if that is a good thing or not. Sometimes it is nice to be able to wear different hats, to be able to discuss microbial dynamics as well as invasive plant management, for instance. Yet, as with every aspect of life, assumptions are used to label and put you in “scholarly” boxes. Being both this-ologist as well as that-ologist might dilute your impact because even if you can wear multiple hats at once, people often assume just one. In the end, however, I have found that expanding my scholarship by working with people that are not like me is what particularly gives me joy as a scientist, good strategy or not. And I have come to believe that these collaborations enable not just breadth, but innovation. For instance, Meier et al (2008) opened an entire new line of investigation on how root phenolics affect soil processes and thus influence species interactions. In Grinath et al (2018) we were able to connect kangaroo rat foraging and burrowing effects to precipitation legacies through effects on soil and plant composition. In Walter et al (2021) we were able to identify spatial signatures of population synchrony over tiny distances – 30 m – using wavelet coherence analyses from physics.

On disability, diversity, and being who you are

I grew up with the privilege of having a father that was a geologist; growing up, I was always eager to go in the field with him and it allowed a glimpse into what life as a scientist might be like. That lived experience certainly propelled me through the first couple of large biology lecture classes. Yet, I grew up with a speech impediment that made me reluctant to speak in classes or in public settings. It’s been a priority for me over the years to work on the communication aspects of science: speaking and writing well, with clear thought and intent. Reviewer comments about a well-written manuscript and nice figures are things that make my heart glow. Yet, it takes a lot of effort and courage. And sometimes it seems like you are the only one up against the wall. As I have worked with more and more students, everyone has things that come easily and things that require grit. Being a parent of two very different kids also hits that point home. Giving people the space to develop and succeed according to however they define success is a priority to me. I see so many successes reflected in this virtual issue – undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs each making important contributions as they direct their paths to academia, non-academics, or in the private sphere.

On mentoring others to find their research path

When thinking about mentoring, I come back to the incredible transition we make from figuring out how to design a first experiment to establishing “pioneering” work. As a new graduate student, it is a lot to expect yourself to design an amazing study to test a completely overlooked hypothesis that advances our field. One thing I do as a mentor is to provide incoming students with a dataset from our research group to explore. Looking at actual messy real-world data adds a much-needed focus on natural history and ecological pattern. It also provides a team from the lab to work with. Having work build on past work emphasizes the iterative nature of science. Dudney et al (2017) is an example – we had been working on a dataset in conjunction with another lab at Berkeley about annual grassland composition over time. When Joan joined the lab as a graduate student, she took the lead on its analyses. The finding of lagged precipitation effects on composition was supported by other experiments in our lab, enabling her to demonstrate both the strong pattern and mechanisms through seed rain and litter effects. Joan is now a professor at University of California Santa Barbara.

The lab group helping Erica (center front) with fieldwork Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, California, that would become Spotswood et al (2017). First row (left to right): Lotte Korell, Claudia Stein, Sasha Berleman, Loralee Larios, Lauren Hallett. Back row (left to right):  Liana Nichols, Dylan Chapple, Emily Farrer, Stephanie Gaucherand, myself, Pierre Mariotte. SFREC has been an important field site for my research on grasslands, including Butterfield and Suding (2013) and Shaw et al (2022) in addition to Spotswood et al (2017).

Many of the papers in this virtual issue – at least half – were workshopped at one of our lab retreats. For the past 15 years, we go to a beach house, ski hut, mountain cabin, for several days each year. We follow a writing workshop model common in English departments where a person (who is not the author) leads a discussion with the group about strengths and ways to improve a paper. The author sits in silence, listening, experiencing how people might read the paper once it is published and you are not in the room. It is a hard thing to do: as an author, you squirm and want to be part of that conversation: to explain why you had to do something, to correct a misconception, to tell people the remarkable meaning of a result. While difficult, and while we could do so many other things during lab retreats, the group invariably decides to devote most of our time to workshopping papers. As a mentor, I see it as another important transition: to see yourself on the “other side” of a paper (as a reader of a journal article) or similarly, the “other side” of a presentation (as an audience member) gives important perspective about how science works to impact the field.

Another incredible transition happens when your mentees establish their paths and build their own groups. The last paper in the special issue (Shaw et al 2022) represents this transition to me. The paper was the result of a series of drought and composition experimental manipulations that I started with one of my graduate students, Lauren Hallett. We have been continuing to work on how rainfall can affect composition in California grasslands (i.e., grass and forb years), and building on Dudney et al (2017), how these composition shifts affect forage production. Shaw et al (2022) demonstrates how functional diversity allows composition to shift to varying precipitation conditions, driving production response, and how dominance of an exotic grass breaks that pattern. Lauren is now a professor at University of Oregon, Ashley Shaw her postdoc, and another author, Caitlin White, is a current graduate student in my group.

Lab retreats mark important steps for many of the papers in this virtual issue. Lab retreat at Point Reyes National Seashore where we workshopped the Dudney et al (2017) paper (top); from left to right, first row: Lauren Hallett, Erica Spotswood, Sara Jo Dickens, Emily Farrer, and back row: Joan Dudney, Pierre Mariotte, Dylan Chapple, Fernando Bechara and myself. The lab retreat at Mount Blue Sky in much colder Colorado where we workshopped the Bueno de Mesquita et al (2021) paper (bottom): from left to right; Isabel de Silva, Ashley Whipple, myself, Laurel Brigham, Claire Karban, Katie Ebinger, Tom Merchant, Nancy Shackelford, Julie Larson, Cliff Bueno de Mesquita. Many more papers in this virtual issue have benefitted from being workshopped at lab retreats, including Spasojevic and Suding (2012), Butterfield and Suding (2013), Farrer et al (2015), Spotswood et al (2017) and Grinath et al (2018).

On the papers that get cited a lot, and others that don’t as much

Honestly, I can’t figure this one out. Some of the most cited papers here are the ones that went through multiple iterations before accepted for publication – it could be that being rejected a couple times leads to better arguments and clearer writing. Others benefit from rapid increase in an emerging field, such as our work on functional traits. Sometimes I wonder about whether the use of less-trendy foundational concepts (e.g., density-dependence) might be to a paper’s detriment, even though I remain keenly interested in, and certainly wont stop working on, such processes.

On family and work and balance

The papers in this virtual issue remind me of many non-work milestones over its course, some of which I mentioned above. I often get asked how I approach balancing work and family. To be honest, I just try my best.  Due to the nature of my husband’s career, I have largely taken care of our two kids’ day-to-day lives. I spend a lot of time with them, and I enjoy most of it. They have certainly taught me what comes easy or hard to me might not for another. They remind me to laugh at myself (often), which is also a good lesson for teaching and research. We prioritize travel and experiences as a family. It is not perfect, and – as my academic moves might indicate – my husband and I have had to redirect and adjust at many stages along the way. There is no way to get around the fact that it takes hard work, a tight calendar and generosity to each other. Yet, I wouldn’t choose one part over another. In fact, my most favorite things are going on a bike or ski trip with my husband, fishing at an alpine lake with my kids, and attending an ecological conference with my lab group. I really like it all.

Last thoughts

I hope the papers in this virtual issue help spur thought and advance our field in some small way. I also hope I have recognized the huge amount of work by so many talented people, that extend far beyond this set of papers in the virtual issue. But I am still not convinced about Eminent? Geez, certainly my middle school son – who I still ask to take the fish off my line so as not to hurt the fish – would scratch his head at that! I end with a couple last thoughts:

  1. Relative to a trauma surgeon, ecology is a sweet career.
  2. Ecology is amazing, regardless of what you compare it to. It offers creativity, intellectual challenge, and the potential to make an everyday difference.
  3. The best ideas come when on a run, skiing, or doing something other than working. It is time well spent.
  4. We have a lot of problems to solve in this world and we need to work together. There is never an excuse to treat people badly.
  5. People are the most important and rewarding part of all.

So, where to now?

I just returned from New Zealand where I was on a Fulbright, working on ways to describe the changing nature of species interactions over time using networks. I am keen to explore more applications to these ideas through functional traits and restoration interventions. I also look forward to collaborating with the new members of my team on their first papers and helping them envision their research directions, perhaps to also find homes in Journal of Ecology. Thank you so much!

Read the full Virtual Issue.

Watch the interview:

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