Saran Twombly, NSF Program Director

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2011. Profile circa 2005. As of 2013, Dr. Twombly was director of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) program.

Dr. Saran Twombly
Dr. Saran Twombly

When did you get interested in ecology? Who was most influential in guiding you into ecology?
Like many professional ecologists, I spent lots of time outdoors as a child. My father took me duck hunting when I was three (he was supposedly babysitting), fishing was mandatory, and my sisters and I freely roamed the forests of the northern Adirondack Mountains and the salt marshes of Cape Cod. My father was a botanist, and by reeling off species names as we walked, he taught me that there was science nested in the joy of being outdoors.

How did you learn about ecological careers–what is your position title now?
I spent 6 months in Newfoundland studying freshwater lakes and was fascinated by their invertebrate fauna. I have taken a break from my faculty position at the University of Rhode Island to serve as a program officer at the National Science Foundation, first in Ecology and now in Population and Evolutionary Processes.
Describe your route to a career in (or using) ecology. What challenges did you need to overcome? What was your training, and what positions have you held?
I was determined from a fairly early age to be an outdoor biologist (like my father), but had no science education in my one-room primary school, disliked biology in both high school and college, and knew almost nothing about ecology. Evelyn Hutchinson offered to be my graduate advisor and introduced me to the worlds of mathematics, theory, art and literature—all as they related to ecology. I then risked studying one of the largest, deepest and oldest lakes in the world (Lake Malawi, Africa) for my dissertation research. These three milestones have defined a ‘career’ that focuses on copepod crustaceans; combines field censuses, experiments, theoretical models and some mathematics to understand population dynamics and life-history evolution; and incorporates populations from large and small lakes scattered from boreal forests to the tropics. Hal Caswell, Bill Lewis, Kare Elgmork, and Carolyn Burns broadened my understanding of zooplankton life-history ecology as I navigated a traditional career path from postdoctoral positions to a faculty position.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
Clarify your career goals as soon as you can. Work as hard as you can to become top in your field. Above all, enjoy what you do.
What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
Know what your audience wants to learn – what their backgrounds and their goals are – so that you can offer them appropriate information at the right level.