Jacquelyn Gill

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

Full NameJacquelyn Gill
Job PositionPhD Candidate
OrganizationUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison
Professional AffiliationAcademic
Research DisciplinePaleoecology
Research HabitatForest
Research OrganismTerrestrial plants
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompassesI study vegetation response to environmental change during the transition from the last ice age to the current interglacial. For my graduate research, I am studying the impact of the extinction of the megafauna (mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, etc.) on plant community composition. I use paleoenvironmental proxies preserved in lake sediments to reconstruct vegetation, fire, and megafaunal presence through time. To do this, I extract and analyze fossil pollen, charcoal, and spores from a dung fungus, Sporormiella, to test hypotheses about vegetation response to changes in herbivory pressure.
What do you love most about your job?I love the deep-time perspective that paleoecology offers. Paleoecologists often talk about the “natural expieriments” of the past, which provide examples of biotic response to climate change, human disturbance, fire, extinction, and a host of other processes. Paleoecology allows for a greater spatial and temporal scale of analysis than is available to modern ecologists. I also love that my job combines elements of field, lab, and modeling work. Since we can’t study our landscapes first-hand, paleoecologists have had to be quite clever when it comes to utilizing clues left behind on the landscape to reconstruct environmental change; fossil pollen, diatoms, isotopes, charcoal, tree rings, cave deposits, packrat middens, etc.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution.Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME. COA only offers one degree (a BA in Human Ecology), and students then develop an emphasis in the field of their choice (mine was Ecology).
Master of Science in Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Briefly describe your job path.Growing up, my love of the natural world translated to an interested in environmental science. As an undergraduate, my interest shifted to understanding the relationship between humans and their natural environments as a way to better understand ecological problems. This took me down a winding path from anthropology to nature writing and philosophy to conservation biology. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to do policy work, but rather wanted to get my hands dirty — to be an ecologist working on problems of interest to managers. I discovered paleoecology as an undergraduate junior; it was the logical culmination of my interdisciplinary interests in geology, ecology, climate, environmental history, anthropology, and glaciers.
What challenges did you need to overcome?My biggest challenge was convincing a large research university that the former student of small liberal arts schools (one of which didn’t offer grades and had no science curriculum), was a qualified candidate for graduate school. I transferred from Goddard College in Plainfield, VT to College of the Atlantic for my junior year, and by the time I discovered what I wanted to do (the equivalent of changing majors mid-stream) I was running out of time. At COA, I skipped intro courses like calculus, chemistry, and biology and jumped straight into courses in biomechanics, ecology, and plant morphology. This required a bit of extra work on my part, and I still lament never having taken calculus or biology as an undergrad, but I also strongly believe that my background in the humanities made me a stronger writer, researcher, and thinker. I had several hands-on research opportunities and excellent mentoring at College of the Atlantic (including a senior thesis) that made up for my lack of calculus, fortunately.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future?I would love to write a book about deep time perspectives in the ecological sciences.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party?I study ecology and climate change at the end of the last ice age, with a focus on what happened when mammoths and a bunch of other really big, hairy animals like died off and stopped eating everything in sight – think African savannas, with glaciers.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice?My parents are working class, and both my dad and step-dad were in the Navy (so I moved around quite a bit as a kid!). Even when I was a little kid I was always tramping around outside, collecting bugs, climbing trees, and making my own tidepool aquariums. My families are very supportive of my work because they know it makes me happy, and they often ask me about what I think about “that whole global warming thing.” They aren’t terribly surprised that I still play in the mud, even if it’s now 15, 000 years old!
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)?BEING OUTSIDE. All the time. As a kid, I developed an early fascination with the natural world through traveling and constant exposure to new landscapes (I moved a lot). At first I thought I wanted to work to “save” the environment as a policy person, but then ultimately decided that I needed to be working outdoors and learning more about natural systems in order to better inform policy and management.
Who currently inspires you?I am inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of the undergraduate workers in my lab; I strive to maintain that level of inquisitiveness, the willingness to ask questions without fear, and the dedication to teamwork and careful research.
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?Be driven by the questions – never accept something as face value, but continually ask, “why?” If you’re having trouble coming up with good questions, you’re not spending enough time in the field!
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)?I would like people to remember that wasn’t afraid to go out on a limb and ask interesting questions, and that I then pursued those questions with careful research.
How do you feel your work has contributed to society?As a graduate student, I don’t really feel comfortable answering this question yet – I still have quite a way to go!
Award NameBraun Award
Year originally profiled.2008