Editor’s note: This post was written by Amy Savage, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State. The post is an entry in an ongoing series that we hope will highlight the diversity of researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The series is inspired by the This Is What A Scientist Looks Like site.
If you walked along Broadway Avenue in Manhattan in August sometime over the last three years, you may very well have seen me crouched down, collecting insects in the strips of vegetation in the middle of the road (street medians). In fact, I talked to quite a few taxi drivers while they waited for traffic lights to change. Invariably, the conversations start with the same question, “What are you doing?” I’ll admit that I have a rather unconventional job – it is, indeed, part of the fun!
So what was I doing in those Broadway medians, city parks and urban forests of Manhattan?
One answer is that I was investigating insect (particularly ant) diversity across different urban habitats and how variation in this diversity affects the ecology of different habitats across the city.
I am one of a growing number of field ecologists testing basic ecological theory inside cities. We know surprisingly little about these complex habitats that now house more than half of all of the people in the world. I am fascinated by a wide variety of questions related to diversity and its consequences within urban ecosystems: What ecological factors (e.g. temperature, habitat area, interactions with other species, proximity to humans, etc.) are most important to maintaining diversity and ecosystem services in cities? How closely do cities mirror less modified habitats in terms of diversity and ecosystem function? What are the roles of humans in urban ecosystems, and what can we do to maximize the benefits of diversity while meeting the needs of a growing human population? What are the consequences of human-driven global ecological changes (e.g. exotic species invasions, global climate change, habitat transformations, etc.) for the species that share our cities? . . .
That answers what I was doing in those Broadway medians, and starts to answer why I think this work is important. A related question is “How did I end up studying these particular questions in Manhattan, of all places?” I doubt that anyone who knew me as a child growing up in the mountains of western Montana would have guessed that I would end up crouched down collecting ants on Broadway. My academic pathway began before I ever set foot in a college classroom.
After high school graduation, I joined Americorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). I worked with a team of nine other 18-24 year olds on projects ranging from distributing food at a food bank, to providing crowd control at a parade, to developing before and after school tutoring programs for middle school students, to building fences to protect native vegetation from cattle trampling. But one of the most influential projects for me was one in which my team led interpretive hikes in oak scrub habitats outside of San Diego, CA. I rediscovered my childhood passion for asking questions about the ecology around me, and met people who were lucky enough to spend their careers pursuing their questions about the natural world. The following year, I entered The Evergreen State College as a first generation university student.
During my sophomore year at Evergreen, I seized on the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica as part of a tropical ecology course. Like many students, I was searching for my own career path and professional passion. Interestingly, I have loved watching ants for as long as I can remember. But it was when I traveled to the tropical rainforests, dry forests, and mangroves of Costa Rica that I realized how important ants are for a wide range of ecosystem functions.
Ants are everywhere in the tropics, from the very tops of canopy trees to the soil underfoot. What was even more exciting to me was that those behaviors that I grew up watching with rapt attention were important to the ecological functions I was learning about and becoming increasingly excited about academically. I had a particular interest in questions with conservation implications, and again, ants are such dominant members of ecological communities that they were ideal systems for answering my (many, many, many) questions.
I stayed in Costa Rica for the spring term, conducted independent research for the first time, and was hooked. This was the point in my career that I first discovered my appreciation of the scientific method. Being a scientist is one of the most empowering careers I can imagine – I make observations, ask questions about them, learn what other people have already found out, and then design experiments to address my questions (which are often more sophisticated because I can learn from work other people have performed). I disabused myself of the incorrect assumption that the most important questions in science had already been asked and answered. I had found my passion and my career path.
After graduating from Evergreen, I earned a master’s degree in biology from Western Washington University and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Rice University. While pursuing my Ph.D., I traveled all the way to the Samoan Archipelago in the heart of Polynesia to ask how beneficial interactions between a native plant (Morinda citrifolia, or “noni”) and an invasive ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes, or the “yellow crazy ant”) affected diversity across the entire archipelago. I found that when the invasive ant fed on the native plant’s nectar, there were strong negative consequences for local diversity, and that the mechanism of this effect was behavioral – the invasive ant was the only ant on the islands that became more aggressive as plant nectar availability increased!
Ironically, it was when I was in the most remote place I have ever been – the lava fields of Samoa – that I first became interested in urban ecology and adding people back into the study of ecology.
On a tiny island group in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, humans were a key part of the ecological story I was trying to understand. For example, the plant I studied is an economically important plant that is grown in plantations on some Pacific islands. While it was not cultivated in Samoa, people did harvest the fruit and interact directly with the plant, the ants, and other insects. This observation made me wonder about the role of humans where most people live – in cities. Which brings me to Broadway . . . why not pursue questions about the ecology of cities in the most urbanized borough of the most urban city in the USA?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t give this long answer to taxi drivers between traffic lights. Most of our conversations went about like this:
Taxi driver: “What are you doing???”
Me: “I am a biologist, and I am studying the ants and other insects that live on Broadway.”
Taxi driver: “Why??”
Me: “Ants are really important to a lot of ecosystem services, but we don’t understand much about their ecology, or even who the ant species are that live in most cities.”
Taxi driver: “Really? Interesting . . . You should see all of the ants in my apartment, yard, driveway ….”
[This is where the light changed or the conversation tended to veer off into cool observations of ants in the daily lives of the taxi drivers of Manhattan]