Felicia Keesing (2009)

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

Full NameFelicia Keesing
Job PositionAssociate Professor
OrganizationBard College
DepartmentDepartment of Biology
Professional AffiliationAcademic
Research DisciplineCommunity Ecology
Research HabitatForest
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompassesI’m currently an Associate Professor of Biology at Bard College, which is about 1.5 hours north of New York City and has about 2000 students.
What do you love most about your job?This position has allowed me a wonderful mix of teaching and research. I maintain an active research program on the ecology of disease while still having the opportunity to teach fantastic, engaged students. My classes are small (<25), and both teaching and research are highly valued at my institution.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution.B.S. – Stanford University
Ph.D. – University of California, Berkeley
Briefly describe your job path.I had an unusual path because I didn’t study biology in college. After college, I did a lot of different things, including working at Microsoft (when it was still small), teaching English in China, and teaching high school computer science. I finally figured out that I wanted to go to graduate school in biology and I have been teaching at small liberal arts colleges since I got my Ph.D. in 1997.
What challenges did you need to overcome?Well, it hasn’t been that bad! I had to overcome having a non-traditional background in biology, which has been a challenge at times and an advantage at others. I also struggled a lot with the logistics of getting a research program in Kenya up and running for my Ph.D.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future?Since my kids were born, I haven’t traveled as much for research as I’d like to. I miss my field sites in Kenya! I hope to be able to spend some time in the field there with my kids and my husband.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party?It depends on the party! I tend to emphasize the research parts of my job because people often have the impression that professors at liberal arts colleges “just” teach. People also frequently ask if it’s nice to have summers off. I tell them I have no idea.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice?My father and grandfather were academics, so it’s the family business in a way. I didn’t expect myself to become an academic, but no one in my family was that surprised.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)?I became interested in ecology by accident. For my first few years in graduate school, I was studying evolutionary biology. In my third year, while looking for a new dissertation project, I stumbled across an ecological question that fascinated me immediately – whether small mammals played any significant role in the ecology of African savannas. At the time, it was generally assumed that the only important consumers were large mammals. I decided to investigate the potential for competition between animals as disparate in body size as elephants and mice. After finding that large and small mammals compete strongly but asymmetrically, I began to study how savanna communities function differently when large mammals aren’t there.
Who currently inspires you?People who push themselves to take on challenges that matter.
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?I encourage students – both undergraduate and graduate – to be fearless in the pursuit of the answers to important research questions. That means being willing to learn new disciplines and new techniques when necessary, to find collaborators from different fields when needed, and to define themselves not by the type of training they’ve had, but by the questions they want to answer.
Year originally profiled.2009