Early Career Ecologist Profile: Meet Helen Bothwell

Hello fellow bloggers and ecology lovers!  I’d like to take a moment to say hi and introduce myself.  Whether we study great forests or soil micro-organisms, I think something we all share is an innate respect for the world around us and a desire to better understand and safe-guard it.  At the core, that is what brought me to a career in ecology.  I was fortunate to grow up on an 88-acre patch of forest in western Wisconsin with parents that gave me the freedom to roam the woods and encouraged me to ask questions about the world around me.  From a young age, I was acutely aware of the interconnectedness all things, including our own place within this web.

As John Muir noted, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  For all its outward harmony and balance, nature is incredibly complex.  I love the challenge of untangling the patterns within this complexity.

As an undergrad at UW-Madison, I discovered biogeography and have been enamored with the study of broad-scale biogeographic patterns ever since.  While at Madison, I worked with Dr. Richard Lindroth, investigating how landscape-level processes (such as fire history) influence phytochemical variation in aspen and birch and how this in turn scales up to affect the associated community of insects, birds, and mammals.

I currently work with Dr. Thomas Whitham at Northern Arizona University, studying another member of the Salicaceae, narrowleaf cottonwood.  Cottonwood is considered to be a foundation species in that it exerts a large and stabilizing impact on its surrounding community and ecosystem.  It is rewarding to work with a tree that has such a far-reaching influence on the landscape, and it’s not half bad hiking and camping in the magnificent mountains and riparian areas this tree calls home!

A gallery forest of narrowleaf cottonwood in front of the Grand Tetons (Wyoming) – one of the coolest places I’ve gotten to sample leaves! Helen Bothwell, 2011.

As climate change rapidly alters community composition and the distribution of species, there is a need to move beyond single species conservation to develop efficient means for understanding how whole communities and ecosystems are expected to respond to climate change.  Studying the underlying genetics of foundation species and their extended community phenotypes allows us to do just that.  As an undergrad, I was plagued by the difficulty of conserving something as complex as an ecosystem with all its intricate relationships, processes and parts.  It is really exciting to me that in a little over a decade, we have begun to develop real, concrete means for achieving this.

The narrowleaf cottonwood community as witnessed (and photographed) in the field! Helen Bothwell, 2012.

As ecology studies the interconnectedness of nature, I take a similar approach to my research, tying together a wide variety of fields, including: landscape and community genetics, phylogeography, forest ecology, climate modeling, GIS, and statistics.  No fear of getting bored!  The more perspectives you’re able to look at a system with, I think the more complete and realistic a picture you’re able to paint.  As part of the Cottonwood Ecology Group, I feel fortunate to have found a lab that places high value on interdisciplinary and collaborative research.  This group also has a long history of merging scientific research with restoration through planting dual purpose common gardens in partnerships with state agencies and conservation organizations.

Bringing together scientific discovery with application, education, and outreach are very important parts of what motivates me.

I’m also a strong proponent of “Work hard, play hard.”  Mixed in with the research, I maintain a healthy diet of live music, travel, hiking, running, yoga, and wine with my girlfriends.  I have discovered canning to be excellent ‘grad school therapy’.  My boyfriend and I canned 27 lbs. of pickles yesterday and cooked up a massive vat of pulled turkey-pork green chili.  Between the aspen lighting up the San Francisco Peaks in a burst of gold against the blue, blue autumn sky and the bounty of harvest overflowing the farmer’s markets, fall in the southwest is pretty hard to beat.  And now to get out and enjoy it!


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