William A. Reiners
From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Position Director and Professor
Department Botany Dept. and Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center
Organization University of Wyoming
When did you become interested in ecology?
I learned about ecology as an undergraduate at Knox College through the influence of Paul Shepard. Paul combined outstanding natural history skills with a philosophical approach to nature. Besides introducing me to formal ecology (using the first edition of Gene Odum’s textbook), he also illuminated how culture influences our cognition of landscapes and nature through a course titled “man in the landscape.” Paul took his advisees on Sunday afternoon excursions that were lessons in observation, land use history and environmental ethics. Paul Shepard went on to write many articles and a series of philosophical books on man and nature that became part of the canon for “deep ecology.” After Paul Shepard, I would name Murray F. Buell as the person who made me a professional ecologist at Rutgers, and wish to recognize strong influences from George M. Woodwell, then at Brookhaven National Lab, and Eville Gorham at the University of Minnesota. All of these men gave generously to help me become a scientist—a never-ending process.
How did you learn about ecological careers?
As an undergraduate, there was only one model–the academic one. By the time I was in graduate school, ecological positions in the government were beginning to open up. It wasn’t until I was very much along in my career that private consulting was a viable career path. I am presently a Professor of Botany but also Director of the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center. As this Center is largely based on soft money, I find myself in the ironic position of operating a business venture.
Describe 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?
My graduate training was a curious mixture of the classical, involving botany and ecology not much different from that taught in the 1930s, and cutting edge paradigms and tools which I encountered at George Woodwell’s lab at Brookhaven. Both the classical and modern have been very useful to me. In retrospect, the biggest personal challenges were realizing, much less overcoming, my own weaknesses in mathematics, scientific philosophy, and strategic visualization. Those weaknesses were partially compensated for by my proclivity toward physics, chemistry and geology, but they have not yet been completely overcome. Since receiving my Ph.D. with Murray Buell in 1964, I have been in academic positions at the University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College and University of Wyoming. I have benefited greatly from a year as a program officer at NSF, as an IGBP Fellow in Berlin, and from sabbaticals in Santa Barbara. Administrative positions as department head and head of research centers have been personal growth experiences but did little for my maturation as a scientist.
What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
Ecology is extremely demanding and none of us can be all things. Nevertheless, I encourage an unstinting effort to be a broader environmental scientist (atmospheric science, geology, etc.). Constantly try to understand the history of science, how advances are made on one hand, versus how we tend to reiterate small circles of rediscovery under new semantics on the other. Think about what ecology needs to be a respectable science, not just what is fun, fundable or equitable. Seek team collaborations with those that complement your strengths. Be willing to seek generalizations without letting them crystallize into truths. Never stop growing. Have a life that nourishes your profession.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
Particularly for non-scientific audiences, put yourself in their place, don’t try to put them in yours. Too bad I didn’t try this until quite late.