Maria Uriarte, Tropical Forest Ecology

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2011. Profile circa 2005.
Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, New York


Ph.D. Cornell University
M.S. Yale School of Forestry
Dr. Uriarte’s research focuses on tropical forest dynamics and landscape ecology.

Ecologist Profile

When did you get interested in ecology? Who was most influential in guiding you into ecology?
In 1989, I left the US to join the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa. My assignment there was to work with women’s agricultural cooperatives to improve vegetable production.

Portrait of Dr. Maria Uriarte in a red sweater, black blouse in front of a tree in a forest.

Dr. Maria Uriarte

Much of my work involved getting funds and personnel to build wells that could access the 30-meter water table. Once built, the major challenge was to negotiate community access to these wells in a completely foreign cultural and socioeconomic context. These experiences impressed on me the importance of people- environment relationships and the futility of development efforts that did not consider the cultural context in which they operated.
How did you learn about ecological careers—what is your position title now?
I just started a position as an assistant professor at Columbia University in the newly-created Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. The program has a strong policy component and I am excited about embracing a more interdisciplinary vision of ecology.
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?
My first challenge was to learn written scientific English. Writing is always a challenge. Coming to ecology from outside the field was also demanding since I lacked basic training in biology. Finally, learning quantitative tools during my postdoctoral training was a difficult but rewarding challenge.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
Be broad-minded and always keep the “big picture” in sight. Addressing the ecological challenges that we face today will require interdisciplinary teams and a broad set of skills including experiments, observations, models and plain common sense. Know who you are. Find a project you like but don’t let it define you. Keep learning new things and get involved in projects that will challenge you to think broadly.

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?

Keep it simple without being patronizing and always put yourself in your audience’s shoes. New media technologies are powerful tools for effective communication. Embrace them.