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PPE History and Centennial Interviews

A Brief History of the ESA Plant Population Ecology Section

By Janette Steets and Lynn Adler

July 15, 2015

The Plant Population Ecology (PPE) section of ESA was formally established in 1994.  Diane L. Marshall (University of New Mexico) was the founding member of the PPE section.  As recounted by Diane, the “start of the plant population ecology section starts with my family. When our daughter was young, the way my husband (Bruce Milne) and I could both go to meetings was to take our daughter and her grandparents to the meeting.  We chose to go to the ESA meeting because we both had colleagues there.  However, I had noticed that there were rarely symposia that were in my area of ecology and I wondered why.  When I saw that symposia were sponsored by sections and that there was no section in my area, the solution seemed obvious.”   In October 1993, Diane Marshall sent out a petition to ESA membership to found the PPE section.  In January 1994, the ESA Executive Committee unanimously approved the formation of the PPE section and named Diane L. Marshall as interim chair.

The PPE section has a long history of supporting travel scholarships for student members to present at the annual ESA meeting.  Funds for the travel awards are provided by proceeds from the section’s annual silent auction.  Diane Marshall and Candi Galen (University of Missouri Columbia) organized the first silent auction at the 1997 Annual ESA Meeting in Albuquerque, NM.  This inaugural event was a sale of “objets d’art” produced by the talented members of the PPE section.  The section has held a silent auction at the annual ESA meeting every year since 1997.  Since 1997, the PPE section has provided travel scholarships to over 60 students (for list of past awardees see

In 2012, the PPE section established a Post-doctoral Excellence Award to recognize an outstanding recent paper in the field of plant population ecology written by a postdoctoral researcher and PPE section member.   Funds for the inaugural award were provided by an ESA Long Range Planning Grant and the Journal of Ecology.  Since 2013, monetary support for this award is provided by funds raised through the annual PPE silent auction as well as section dues.  Past awardees include Jennifer Williams (2012), Rupesh Kariyat (2013), and Jennifer Gremer (2014).

The PPE section has a rich history of supporting symposia at the annual ESA meeting.  Some symposia organized by PPE members have resulted in special issues of journals (e.g., Ecology 78(6): “Linking herbivory and pollination: New perspectives on plant and animal ecology and evolution”).

As we move into the next century of the ESA, the PPE section is developing new methods to help promote our discipline and early-career scientists. In the past year we have redesigned our website to include a job forum and featured interviews with a Highlighted Member of the Month, and are making plans to develop a page for research haikus. We welcome suggestions and new ideas for our section to promote the field of plant population ecology and support the careers of ecologists.


Diane L. Marshall’s account on starting the Plant Population Ecology section and the silent auction tradition:

The history of why I sent out a petition to start the plant population ecology section starts with my family. When our daughter was young, the way my husband (Bruce Milne) and I could both go to meetings was to take our daughter and her grandparents to the meeting. We chose to go to the ESA meeting because we both had colleagues there. However, I had noticed that there were rarely symposia that were in my area of ecology and I wondered why. When I saw that symposia were sponsored by sections and that there was no section in my area, the solution seemed obvious. I talked to others in the field and got help on the petition, then sent out the petition to everyone I could think of. A small number of signatures is required, but we wanted to build a section.

The first arts and crafts sale was organized by Candi Galen and I. Anna Sher and I did a fun collaboration. I threw mugs that she painted to depict plants commonly studied by members of the section. These sold very quickly.


ESA Centennial Interviews:

Interviews with long-standing members of the ESA Plant Population Ecology Section


Sharon Strauss, University of California at Davis

Randy Mitchell, University of Akron

David Inouye, University of Maryland, College Park 

  1. You are one of the early members of the Plant Population Ecology section of ESA. What was the vision of the section at its inception? Do you feel like the PPE section has lived up to its initial objectives?

Sharon: I do think PPE gives community to plant population biologists at ESA. I also think it was a home for plant evolutionary ecology when ecology was less appreciative of evolution.

Randy: I don’t think I was around or at least very active during the actual organization of the section. When I served as an officer (~2003-2005) we were trying to develop and improve our web presence and grow our support for student awards.

I believe the section’s main goals were to facilitate scientific progress in plant pop ecology, help students, and provide an avenue for informal networking in those veins. I think the section has done a great job of that throughout the section’s history. We’ve sponsored some really nice symposia, we’ve helped a lot of students pay for meeting expenses, and we have had a lot of fun times at our annual meeting. And the silent auction has become more than just a fund raiser – whenever I’m at the meeting and don’t know quite where to go, I just wander by the auction booth, and I’m sure to find someone fun to talk to.

David: The field of plant population ecology was still relatively young when the section was initiated. I think it wasn’t until the publication of John Harper’s 1977 book on Population Biology of Plants that the topic started to get a lot of attention from ecologists. I think the goal of the PPE section at the time was to help call attention to the field, as well as provide an opportunity for those interested in it to get together each year at the annual meeting. I think that it was (and is) successful in that regard, through the social/business meeting and the sessions/symposia that the section has helped to organize over the years.

  1. Currently, the main activities of the PPE section include fundraising via our silent auction to support PPE student and post-doctoral awards, highlighting the research of early-career section members, and providing networking opportunities during the ESA annual meeting. Were these activities the main focus of the PPE section 20 years ago?

Sharon: More or less, they were. We didn’t have the early career research highlights, that I can recall. Mostly we provided graduate student support for going to meetings. The silent auction has been going a long time.

Randy: That is exactly what I recall as our major activities from the beginning. I think the auction may have had some of its origin with Diane Marshall’s pottery and Candi Galen’s poetry, but I’m not sure.

David: I can’t recall exactly when the silent auction became a feature of the PPE’s annual meeting activities, but I know that it was quite early in its history. Diane Marshall played an important role in that in its early years, contributing a lot of her pottery pieces.

  1. The Plant Population Ecology section was always present online. However, the internet has grown tremendously in the past two decades. What opportunities does the internet now provide which you would have loved to have in the early days of the PPE section?

Sharon: There seem to be lots of forums for science exchange out there, so I’m not sure that having more of that on PPE would be that well subscribed. It could be cool to have some features of plant natural history once a month, but I am old-fashioned.

Randy: I find the differences are more in terms of access (now easier and more universal) than in terms of what we do with it. Then again, I tend to only use what I’m used to, so I may not be using the newest options much. One thing that may be improved is the ease of setting up and maintaining a website. I recall a lot of effort and thought, especially from Gordon Fox, in setting up, revising, moving, and generally maintaining the website.

David:  Twenty years ago the scientific community online was not as international as it is now, and ecologists weren’t as dependent on e-mail for communication as we are now. I started ECOLOG-L 23 years ago, and it only had a fraction of the subscribers and message that it does now. It would have been nice to have a large, interactive online community back at the inception of the PPE. Looking forward, I think the efforts of the INNGE to facilitate international communication by using the Internet will provide benefits for the PPE in the future.

  1. From its inception, was the PPE section active in promoting and endorsing Symposia and Oral Sessions at the annual meeting?

Sharon: Yes, PPE has endorsed symposia as long as I can remember.

Randy: That is how I recall it. I know we sponsored three symposia for 2005, and that was not the first time we had done it.

David:  My recollection is that one of the original incentives for the PPE section was the ability that conferred for its members to promote and endorse Symposia and Oral Sessions at the annual meeting.

  1. The topic of gender inequality in science has gained momentum in recent years. Do you feel the PPE section was male dominated at its inception? More generally, do you feel Population Ecology has made progress in removing gender inequalities over the past 20 years?

Sharon: Plants seem to be attractive to women. I never felt that the PPE was particularly male dominated, even at the beginning.

Randy: My memory of our section back then is of a pretty even sex ratio, and a very welcoming attitude. I saw a fair bit of prejudice and inequality in some other areas of ecology back then. But in my experience with PPE, it was not a problem for us then, and is not a problem now. I hope I am right on both counts.

David: As is true for ecology in general during my career (since 1971), the number of women in the PPE section has increased greatly over the past 20 years. I haven’t checked the membership list but my guess is that it’s probably a majority of women now, at least in the younger age classes, and I don’t perceive any gender inequality at this point. We do need to work on other aspects of diversity in ecology, including the PPE section, so there’s a goal for the future. I encourage PPE members to become involved as mentors for the SEEDS program.