Laura Foster Huenneke

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

Dr. Laura Huenneke
Dr. Laura Huenneke
Full NameLaura Foster Huenneke
Job PositionVice President for Research
OrganizationNorthern Arizona University
Professional AffiliationAcademic
Research DisciplineCommunity Ecology, Conservation Biology, Plant Ecology, Vegetation Ecology
Research HabitatDesert, Forest, Grassland
Research OrganismPlants in general
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompassesAs a faculty member in past years, I balanced teaching with active research in the ecology of southwestern ecosystems. I worked in forests, grasslands, and deserts, on questions ranging from the population biology of key species (from rare to invasive) to the system-level impacts of altered community diversity.
Now, as an academic administrator, my primary role is to facilitate the work of our faculty and staff – in educating students, in carrying out significant research, and in communicating our results to the audiences that need the information. I spend much of my time mentoring and supporting our faculty and staff; some of the time managing both budgets and people; and (increasingly) some of the time raising funds for those activities. Public higher education is undergoing tremendous change right now, partly because of the terrible economic condition of so many states and partly because of major shifts in what the public expects of universities. Describing the value of research – as a part of education and as a part of the university’s mission – is a key role for any academic scientist today.
What do you love most about your job?As a field researcher, I loved the time in the field and also the ability to tease answers from massive data sets. As an instructor, I loved opening students’ eyes to new possibilities and experiences – we often worked with first-generation college students and others who had no idea what ecology (or even science in general) might mean to them. And now as an administrator and spokesperson, I find it really exciting to pass on to others the importance of the work my colleagues and students are doing. The basic science, and even the teaching and career preparation, can have so much more impact if the right people learn about it – and I consider that my role, to make sure the right audience hears about it.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution.A.B. with honors: Biological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia.
Ph.D., Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University.
Briefly describe your job path.I followed the straight and narrow path typical of a “good student” back in the ’70s. After graduating from college (four years, no detours), I went straight on for a Ph.D. at Cornell University. Peter Marks was a tremendous personal inspiration and support, helping me feel empowered to pursue whatever interests and trajectories turned up. But I learned from all the faculty – and my fellow graduate students, who remain great friends and inspirations to me today. I then spent a year as a postdoc at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, with Rebecca Sharitz – my one exposure to a government research environment – and three years working in an interdisciplinary research team at Stanford with Hal Mooney and Peter Vitousek. That experience taught me a great deal about the value and fun of working in a truly interdisciplinary team. While at Stanford I also worked with the Center for Conservation Biology, which helped pull me into the excitement of applying ecology to real-world problems.
I took a faculty position at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces – my first real exposure to the desert and southwestern ecosystems (and southwestern environmental challenges). I spent sixteen years there, earning tenure and eventually being promoted to Regents’ Professor (the highest academic rank of the university). I was pulled, though, to become a department chair and then to get into a full-time administrative role as dean. I moved to Northern Arizona University a few years ago, as Dean of Arts and Sciences; after just a few months, the university reorganized, and (becoming Dean of Engineering and Natural Sciences) I had to learn a great deal about engineering and the way engineers apply scientific principles to a deliberate reshaping of the environment. There’s not nearly the difference between the systems thinking of an engineer and the systems thinking of an ecologist as everybody says! Then most recently I became Vice President for Research, having to become even broader in my understanding of all the approaches to scholarship and research.
What challenges did you need to overcome?I began working in ecology when there still were few women among the faculty members in science departments. I was the first woman in the biology department where I was a faculty member, to have a child and to try to balance family and career. In my role as an administrator, of course an enormous challenge is making tough decisions about limited resources – no one likes to hear the bad news that his or her project isn’t a high enough priority to receive support.
Overall, I believe the greatest challenge in anyone’s career is deciding how to balance and invest our time and effort. We all have the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I used to think it would be challenging to have enough good ideas to find something worthwhile to do. But I quickly found out – there is a world full of important projects and ideas, and unfortunately a very finite number of hours in which to tackle them!
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future?I would love to combine my background as a wetlands ecologist (from my Cornell and Savannah River days) with time to do fieldwork in the southwestern US and Mexico. Riparian and wetland environments in this region are already greatly endangered, and climatic shifts and human impacts will only exacerbate that. At some point, after my administrative efforts are finished, I’d love to get back to doing field work in these very special and fragile environments.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party?Once on a plane, chatting with the fellow sitting next to me, my description of myself as a “plant ecologist” resulted in him thinking that I was an environmental activist dealing with the impacts of large industrial operations (”plants”)!! So today I am more likely to say that I am an ecological scientist, interested in how plant and animal species influence each other and the resources that humans use.
(Of course, many people wonder “What does a dean do??” so I also have to explain about managing the university enterprise!)
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice?I grew up in the suburban midwest – not an outdoorsy family at all. Both of my parents were prevented from completing college by World War II – they prized education very much and encouraged me to go as far as I could, even though neither one really understood anything about science, graduate school, or the academic career path. My father’s encouragement was important to my choosing science (he was a very technical but also hands-on person). I’m afraid my mother (though very proud of me) was always disappointed that I was a grubby field scientist; if she were still alive, she’d be much happier that I dress for the office environment now!
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)?I had a cousin (much older than I) who had done a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins (on penguins in the Antarctic) – his example was the only one I had of a real person becoming a scientist and pursuing graduate study. I was fortunate to have several great mentors as an undergraduate – Donald Hazelwood, Steve and Sue Chaplin, Deborah Rabinowitz – who encouraged me to go on for doctoral work. My time at Stanford was critical to my viewing myself as a research scientist… really, it has been a never-ending process of coming to see myself in an entirely new light every few years.
Who currently inspires you?My faculty colleagues (both at my own university and elsewhere), who are still so energetic about their work and their science after so many years. And our students – especially the students I’ve met through ESA’s SEEDS program, who have such enormous passion and potential.
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?There are so many opportunities to make a real contribution. I’ve been very frustrated with some of the attitudes in academia, that the only worthwhile career path is intense research activity at a prestigious big-name university (capped off, of course, with election to the National Academy of Sciences). But there are so many different kinds of colleges and universities – settings where we can make a real difference in working with students; and so many agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate settings where the ecological and scientific perspective is crucial. I would encourage any ecologist to pursue the setting and the pathway that feels right to them – even if it isn’t the conventional academic road to stardom.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)?I hope there are a few of my former students – those who turned out to be scientists, and those who didn’t – who look at the environment around them with different eyes. And I hope that some of the places I have lived and worked have been changed for the better (or protected from change) – whether or not anyone recalls my name as an influence.
Year profile was last updated.2009