Rachel Thiet

From an “Focus on Ecologists” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2009-2011.
Rachel Thiet

Full Name Rachel Thiet
Degree Ph.D. 2002 (Ohio State University)
Job Position Professor and Director
Organization Antioch University New England
Department Environmental Studies
Professional Affiliation Academic
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompasses I am an Environmental Studies professor at a highly interdisciplinary, teaching-centered graduate school in Keene, NH. I teach a wide variety of courses, including Earth Systems Science, many ecology courses such as Soil Ecology and Wetlands Ecology, and several field study trips away from campus such as Coastal Geoecology on Cape Cod, Desert Ecology in the Sonoran Desert, and the Natural History of Alaska. I direct our Self-designed M.S. degree track and our Field Study Trip Program. I also advise Master’s thesis projects in various environmental topics including soil microbial ecology, soil insect ecology, and mollusk, plant, and seed ecology in New England salt marshes. Several of my students are involved in my on-going salt marsh ecology research program on Cape Cod National Seashore (MA), which I developed in collaboration with Stephen M. Smith, the Plant Ecologist for CCNS.
What do you love most about your job? I love so many things about my job! Two things stand out: first, my students are engaged, adult learners who have an explicit commitment to environmental conservation and advocacy; they are creative and passionate, and they give me hope and inspiration. Second, I love the diversity in my professional activities; I teach a wide variety of graduate-level science courses both on campus and in the field, I teach ecology in an interdisciplinary context, and I advise a wide diversity of graduate ecology projects.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution. B.A. in Social Sciences, University of Michigan Ann Arbor
M.S. in Natural Resources (specialization: Wetlands Ecology), The Ohio State University
Ph.D. in Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology (specialization: Plant and Soil Ecology), The Ohio State University
Briefly describe your job path. Prior to starting graduate school in ecology in 1996, I worked for five years as a mental health counselor with survivors of domestic violence and troubled adolescent girls. My graduate work at Ohio State was supported primarily by a Teaching Assistantship, so I was fortunate to teach consistently throughout graduate school; these teaching experiences taught me that I’m most stimulated when exploring science with college students. After graduating from Ohio State, I took a brief postdoctoral research position in soil microbial ecology at the University of New Hampshire, which only reiterated that I am happiest working closely with students. I accepted my faculty position at Antioch University New England in 2003, and I’m delighted to be in a strongly interdisciplinary, teaching-centered university, while still having the opportunity to advise a diverse array of graduate research projects.
What challenges did you need to overcome? It has been challenging to continue my research activity in soil ecology at a teaching-centered university that does not have the science research infrastructure necessary to do laboratory-based research. On a related note, as a teacher I have had to adjust my content delivery to make my knowledge base in soil ecology and microbiology more accessible to my students, who tend to be more interested in charismatic megafauna than in soil bacteria and fungi… that is, until they take a course from me!
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future? I hope to secure the necessary funding and administrative support to have even a rudimentary laboratory facility developed and built at Antioch New England. I recently submitted a grant proposal to NSF to fund the renovation of our existing science laboratory. As a soil scientist, I’ve become increasingly interested in soil insects and bioturbation and am currently trying to grow my research program in that direction.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? I tell people that I teach and advise Environmental Studies graduate students who are committed to environmental conservation, education, and justice, and that I couldn’t be happier with where I ended up. I’m very proud of our university and its mission, values, curriculum, and pedagogy… despite the challenges!
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? I have always adored biology, and was never satisfied until I understood *why* a biological or geochemical process occurred. I recall as a child wanting nothing more than to watch and experiment with making things grow. I loved chemistry and cellular biology. So, even as a young person I approached my scientific understanding from a mechanistic perspective; this might explain why I became a soil ecologist, since soil processes explain so much aboveground! I became a soil scientist because belowground processes are so multidimensional and complex, and because soil organisms need advocates with good communication and teaching skills. I’ve also always had a soft spot for the underdog.
Who currently inspires you? I am most inspired by my students, whose energy and action on behalf of ecology, science teaching, and environmental advocacy give me tremendous hope for a world in which we treat the Earth with greater respect and honor.
What is the most valuable advice a mentor gave you or that you would offer to someone who’d like to do the same job as you? During the third year of my Ph.D., I spent all day planting pine seed bioassays into tiny, site-specific soil plugs I had collected from a six-hour distant field site the previous day. While wheeling them on an old lab cart across the parking lot to the greenhouse, the cart caught a pothole and all my samples overturned on the ground. Of course, I was beside myself with frustration and worry, and my Ph.D. advisor, now-retired Ohio State ecologist Ralph E.J. Boerner, “comforted” me by saying glibly, “Rachel, ecological research is what you manage to salvage from the wreckage.” It sounds cynical, but it was the best advice he ever gave me. Now when I have a thesis student struggling with an unanticipated but inevitable disaster in the field or lab, I relay Ralph’s perspective. It helps!
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)? I’d like people to remember that having a diverse academic and professional background is an asset in our field. My past experience in the social sciences and liberal arts has made me a stronger, more astute, and more effective scientist and science teacher. I think about ecology in the context of its connections with advocacy, education, political economics, and the humanities. This perspective has enhanced my ability to communicate with my students and with the public about important scientific principles. As ecologists, half our battle is increasing scientific literacy among the general public.
How do you feel your work has contributed to society? I’ve sent a lot of graduates into the world with a new and passionate appreciation for soil organisms and belowground processes. Many of my former students write from distant reaches of the globe to celebrate a middle school soil ecology lesson they just delivered, or to inquire about how to increase productivity on their organic farm using natural soil amendments. These letters are restorative and inspiring! I’ve also contributed to society in my role as a female college science professor. Many of my female graduate students are still so insecure about their abilities as scientists; seeing my success and satisfaction as an ecologist and academic, and knowing about my atypical professional history in coming to ecology from the social sciences, can help give women the confidence they need to pursue whatever they want in our field. I encourage all of my students, male and female, to go for it!
Year originally profiled. 2009
Year profile was last updated. 2010