Carol Brewer

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2011. Profile circa 2004.
Degree                                                      Ph.D. 1993 (Wyoming)
Position                                                    Associate Professor
Department                                              Biology Department
Organization                                            University of Montana
carol_brewerDescribe 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?
As a kid, I lived all over the USA, but we always lived on the edge of wild places – farms, woods, streams, mountains, and beaches. When we were children, my brothers and I had many adventures exploring these “wild” places. These experiences catalyzed in me a deep appreciation of nature while I was still in grade school. This was further kindled by seeing pictures of the earth taken from space as the space race took off in the 1960’s – more than anything space exploration sparked my early interest in science. Ironically, I really never took more than one or two science and math courses until I got to college. I started college as an art major. It wasn’t until I HAD to take science that I learned about the field of ecology. As for mentors, my grandfather was a a passionate gardener. In the process of teaching me how to grow plants, he taught me a lot about plant physiological ecology (eventhough he didn’t call it that). At CSU-Fullerton, I had two especially influential undergraduate mentors – Jack Burk and Mike Horn – who introduced me to research as an undergraduate, and cultivated my earliest interest in plant functional morphology and ecology. Nancy Stanton, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming, and one of the three women science professors I had during my entire college career, has been an important mentor since my first grad school days.
I am an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Montana. My position is unique in that the expectation is that I will do research in BOTH biology and science education. To be honest, I don’t think I really knew a lot about the rich diversity of careers in ecology until I started advising undergraduates. Until then, most ecologists I knew worked as were professors.
As part of the first generation in my family to go to college, we were very naive about what constituted good preparation for being successful once you got there. Where I went to school in the mid 70’s, girls were still tracked out of science and advanced mathematics. Instead, I focused my studies in art and literature. Consequently when I switched majors from art to biology, I had a lot of catching up to do, especially in mathematics. After finishing a BA in Biology, I took a job in California looking for abandoned hazardous waste disposal sites to save up money for grad school. I did my masters at the University of Wyoming with Mike Parker on aquatic macrophyte ecology and biomechanics. Afterwards, I had a Research Fellowship to study macrophyte ecology with Bjørn Rørslett in Norway. I completed my PhD at the Wyoming with Bill Smith, where I studied the ecophysiological significance of leaf surface wetness. During my time as a graduate student I became interested in how people learn science. I simultaneously completed a BS in Science Education with my MS degree, and I started publishing in education journals while I was working on my dissertation. Although this interest has served me very well, my graduate advisors were not terribly enthusiastic at the time. However, they never put up roadblocks to pursuing my dual interests. I went straight from graduate school into my current position at the University of Montana. This was advantageous in that I HAD A JOB where I was expected to do research in both ecology and education! It was a disadvantage because all the other new professors in my department had 2 – 5 years of postdoc experience, data, and publications and, therefore, considerably more momentum in starting up new labs. The years to tenure in this position were tremendously difficult. It was a challenge to develop research programs in both ecology and education, and there was no established tradition for how to evaluate someone with these dual responsibilities. Working as a professor has allowed me the freedom and flexibility to combine all of my diverse interests. Today I have graduate students in both fields in my lab, and I am getting a lot better about finding the balance between my two research programs, and between work and the rest of my life. in my research program.
What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
My advice? Just do it! From my perspective as an ecologist and research mentor, it is important to develop skills for communicating with managers, policy makers, and the public – to find ways to link research to public awareness and decision making. This is an important part of the researcher’s role in promoting scientific literacy – communicating about science in ways that capture the imagination and understanding of the communities in which we live. Personally, I have resolved to translate the research I do in ways that are meaningful for non-scientists (e.g., leading workshops for teachers, publishing in science education journals, participating in community outreach). Moreover, I require all of my graduate students to write one chapter of their thesis or dissertation for a nonscientific audience. Specifically, I tell them to write so that my mother will understand and appreciate what they are working on. Modeling and practicing these skills with my students is one step toward communicating the science we do beyond our scientist peers.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
Seek out lots of volunteer and paid job experiences to find your passion so you can make sure you are not training for a career you will not like. Develop skills that will set you apart from everyone else. In particular, cultivate your quantitative skills, learn another language, and read within and well beyond the boundaries of your field. Find out how people learn so you will be a better teacher. Take risks to keep yourself fresh and open to learning new things. And remember to enjoy life all along the way.