In this interview, UMBC Sustainability’s Laura Bartock (‘2013) asks GES Professor Christopher Swan about sustainability and his research.
Dr. Swan is a leading researcher in the Baltimore Ecosystem Study and specializes in Community Ecology, Biodiversity, Urban Ecology, Ecology of Rivers & Streams.
“We know that very diverse ecological communities provide important ecosystem services, such as pollinators, [...] These services are important not only to human well-being, but plants and animals as well.”
“Ask questions that are both intellectually intriguing to you, but at the same time strive to ensure the questions are relevant to society in general.“
“I also believe that most people care more than they know about sustainable practices.”
More from the interview:
Laura Bartock: Why is sustainability important to you (personally/professionally)?
Dr. Swan: The process of accepting the limitations of the environment is an inevitable part of our lives since humans have so successfully been able to extract natural resources for their perceived own well-being. To me, proceeding without any foresight as to how to best manage the environment is irresponsible. Now, I am not of the mind set at all that the environment can return to its pristine state. However, I do think that resources can be managed better and more responsibly. Furthermore, I also believe that most people care more than they know about sustainable practices.
Laura Bartock: How would you explain your research goals to the average person on the street?
CS: My interests in lie in explaining how biodiversity – or the number of different kinds of co-occurring plants and animals – is maintained in space and time. This is important because we know that very diverse ecological communities provide important ecosystem services, such as pollinators, nutrient recycling, freshwater, improved soil conditions, and how well ecosystems can recover from disturbances, like hurricanes and fire. These services are important not only to human well-being, but plants and animals as well.
LB: How did you become interested in this project?
CS: A very good question. Scientists approach their research in an effort to seek generality. What processes explain the same patterns in different systems? For example, if we know that nitrogen loading to the Chesapeake Bay can lead to dead zones in the summer, is this process unique to this estuary only, or to all estuaries? We know, of course, this can occur in all kinds of waterbodies.
I became interested in the field of community ecology, which seeks to understand the mechanisms that shape species coexistence across multiple scales, largely because it was theoretically intriguing. The notion of generalizing empirical results to apply in many types of ecosystems is powerful, and I wanted to be apart of that.
Another reason is that species are going extinct at an alarming rate.
What are the consequences of this for other ecosystem processes, like nutrient cycling and soil development? Many people in the world rely on the natural environment to provide for them daily.
The link between biodiversity and those needs makes the theory I test relevant.
LB: What advice would you give to someone embarking on their own research journey?
CS: Ask questions that are both intellectually intriguing to you, but at the same time strive to ensure the questions are relevant to society in general.
Seek to make the work personally rewarding. Research is hard and iterative, which means perseverance is a must. Therefore, really having a passion for the science is critical to getting through the tough times.
Read broadly in your field, and often. Reading good material is essential to being a good writer, and writing will comprise the vast majority of your time. Some suggest reading two peer-reviewed articles a day, as well as writing 1-2 hours a day. This is great advice, but often a hard pace to maintain.
Engage with good collaborators. Personally, I value smaller research teams. Collaboration is an organic process where intellectual engagement feeds enthusiasm and vice versa.
Take risks and accept failures. One doesn’t grow intellectually without failing, working through the problem, and moving forward. Successes don’t necessarily make you a better scientist, coping with failures does.
Do you know a sustainability champion on campus? Refer them to us to be featured, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the interview in its entirety at Sustainability Matters at UMBC