My life as an ecologist

As you have probably guessed, I do not write about ecology much anymore, despite devoting 30 years of my life to the subject. I am toying with a few new ideas to write about, but for now, I wanted to share some of my past work in case you are wondering who I was as an ecologist.

Broadly speaking, I am a plant ecologist interested in plant population dynamics, community ecology, and conservation. Specifically, I was interested in biological invasions and their impacts on plant-insect mutualisms, which include pollination, seed dispersal, and other mutually-beneficial relationships. Over time, my research evolved into using large-scale ecological disturbances, such as prescribed fire and livestock grazing, to manage conservation areas.

F Street ditch vs. South Africa?

Finding a dissertation topic is no easy task, but I struck gold with my PhD advisor, Maureen Stanton. She gave her students complete autonomy while developing their research projects and fostered a supportive and vibrant lab group. I am cussedly independent (a trait that does not augur well with ME) so this worked well for me, but it meant I had a few false starts. I tried working with a mutualism involving native and invasive ants and lyceanid butterflies, sometimes called gossamer-winged butterflies.

Ants tending a lycaenid butterfly caterpillar. Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/pondapple/9529767484.

Ants will “tend” and protect lycaenid caterpillars in exchange for a nectar-like substance they exude on their hind quarters, which amounts to ants licking the butts of caterpillars. Isn’t nature awesome? I was interested in whether the invasive Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) was doing as good a job as the native ants in protecting the caterpillars from parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in the caterpillars. Remember the movie Alien? Same deal, but without Sigourney Weaver.

I recall one afternoon while trying to collect data in 100-degree heat along the F Street ditch in Davis, CA, thinking eff-this. The joke after that was, “F Street ditch or South Africa, hmmm…let me think about that for a minute.” Needless to say, by December that year I was on a flight to Cape Town in search of another type of mutualism with ants involving seed dispersal.

Lycaenid butterfly (though not the ones I studied in Davis). Pretty little things, aren’t they? Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudophilotes_vicrama.

For my dissertation, I worked in the Western Cape of South Africa looking at the effects of the Argentine ant invasion on native ant assemblages that disperse seeds in fynbos, a vegetation type similar to the chaparral in California, but far more diverse and with stronger mutualisms. At the heart of my research was the question, “Do mutualisms matter to ecological communities?” While there was a huge literature on the role of ecological interactions, such as predation and competition, there were no experimental studies that quantified the effects of mutualism on plant communities at the time. The answer was yes!

Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve in the Western Cape of South Africa, where I did my dissertation work. Beats the F Street ditch in Davis! Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/vark/23950094300.

This is also when my illness started. During the end of my second field season, I got mononucleosis (or glandular fever, as it is called in South Africa). This turned into ME.

I was immensely fortunate that the journal Nature accepted my first paper for publication with minimal revision. An academic’s wildest dream is to get a paper accepted to this journal or its American counterpart, Science. I also had a paper accepted in Ecology, another tough nut to crack. I was not as lucky with my third chapter and it still languishes (and will continue to).

Christian CE. 2001. Biological invasion reveals the consequences of mutualism for plant communities. Nature 413: 535-639.

A side gig

Interestingly, it was not my Nature paper that has been cited a bunch, but one I did as a side project with another graduate student at UC Davis. Little did I know at the time, but this was a harbinger of me becoming a restoration ecologist.

We asked a perennial question in restoration ecology: how local is local? As in, should we be concerned with introducing new genes when we attempt to restore populations? What if we are bringing in maladapted genes into populations that are locally adapted to their conditions? The paper involved an extensive literature review and a survey of restoration practitioners to determine if they were concerned about genetics in restoration and, if so, what they were doing about it.

McKay JK, CE Christian, S Harrison, JK Rice. 2005. ‘‘How local Is local?’’—A review of practical and conceptual issues in the genetics of restoration. Restoration Ecology 13:3 432-440.

Building a bridge between the theory and practice of conservation

After I finished my PhD in South Africa at UC Davis, I was awarded a highly-coveted Smith Postdoctoral Fellowship with The Nature Conservancy (the program is now with the Society for Conservation Biology). I was in one of the first cohorts in this innovative program that places freshly-minted PhDs with PhD scientists at The Conservancy to provide some real-world experience. I had the extremely good fortune to work with an ace fire ecologist in the northern Sacramento Valley as well as a beloved professor at UC Santa Cruz.

The camaraderie with others in my cohort was my favorite aspect of the program. We were flown to exotic destinations three times a year for various trainings to help jumpstart our careers as conservation movers and shakers in academia. I adored those people and had the privilege of working with them on a paper about bridging the gap between social and natural scientists in conservation, a hot topic back then.

Fox HE, CE Christian, JC Nordby, OW Pergams, GD Peterson, CR Pyke. 2006. Perceived barriers to integrating social science and conservation. Conservation Biology 20:6 1817-1820.

For my postdoctoral research, I looked at the joint effects of livestock grazing and prescribed fire on plant and ant community assemblages. Again, it is a huge source of frustration that I will likely never publish the main findings from this work. I simply lack the cognition to deal with complex data sets, let alone writing code for statistical analysis.

However, I can offer this one paper I did with my lovely colleague, Emma Underwood, a fellow graduate student from my days at UC Davis.

Underwood E and CE Christian. 2009. Consequences of prescribed fire and grazing on grassland ant communities. Environmental Entomology 38:325-322.

Going rogue

The intent of the Smith Postdoctoral Fellowship was to super-charge new academics aiming to do research in conservation biology. I was a rebel and left academia for a couple of years to work for The Conservancy as a senior scientist. The questions that practitioners were facing were far more compelling and interesting to me than anything I could concoct in the ivory tower. Plus, I saw my chance to see how all facets of conservation are done.

Working for The Nature Conservancy greatly shaped me as professor when I returned to academia. Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/rockbandit/9052784451.

I started my faculty position in 2006 in the Department of Environmental Studies at Sonoma State and within a few months, my ME worsened substantially. I limped along for the first few years, trying to get on top of the heavy teaching load in the California State University System. I attempted another research program in grasslands that involved my students but I ran out of gas. This saddens me more than anything because my talented graduate student and I both lost our health during this time and the likelihood of this work being published is vanishingly small.

Some of my undergrads and my graduate student estimating percent cover of plant species. We designed an experiment to look at how different methods for controlling the highly-invasive Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica) affect native plant species.

I also had the pleasure of working with some wild and crazy undergraduates who made me laugh until I cried. I’ll never forget the image of us rolling around in the (tick-infested) grasslands laughing uncontrollably. After long days in the field we would invariably decompress over some “road sodas” in the shade.

Parks in crisis

As my condition worsened I recalled something one of my postdoctoral colleagues told me. When she got pregnant with her first child she said she needed to find a project she could do from her desk. Eventually, I figured I needed to turn away from field-based research and try something that I could do from the comfort of my office.

Sugarloaf State Park, Sonoma County, California. Image from https://www.sonomavalley.com/listing/sugarloaf-ridge-state-park/159/.

That opportunity came when my department received a call asking if any of our faculty had an interest in helping with the state parks crisis that was underway in California. Back in 2011, California had to shut down its state parks. Sonoma County was at the forefront of an effort to develop new models involving public-private partnerships to help put parks on a better financial footing. I was awarded a grant to research the barriers and opportunities facing parks. By this point, I was starting to decline rapidly and it is a small miracle I completed the project, thanks mostly to my post-doc, someone who understood the methods used in the social sciences far better than I did.

Christian CE, C Luke, SS Moore, and L Dixon. 2013. Sonoma County parks in the balance. Unpublished report. Sonoma State University.

Going forward, I am thinking of writing a piece about riparian restoration on the Truckee River here east of Reno or sagebrush restoration following wildfire. I love where I live now – at the intersection of two enormous ecosystems – the Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin. I have turned away from my ecological interests out of necessity due to illness. Writing about medicine helps me to understand an exceedingly complex disease, but plant ecology and conservation remain firmly rooted in my heart.

I live where the Great Basin meets the Sierra Nevada. Image from https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/artemisia_tridentata.shtml.

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