Early Career Ecologist Profile: Meet Bill Smith

“All time is time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all … bugs in amber.”

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Since my dad is a scientist, I grew up taking any and all science-related courses offered, although, for a long time, I was never really sure if I was actually into science or if I liked science because my dad liked science.  The first time I remember really getting excited about something science-related wasn’t until high school when I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” (a book given to me by my mom).  For those unfamiliar with the book, a main theme is time, and that all moments (past, present, and future) always have existed and always will exist (time only appears to progress linearly to humans due to our limited senses).  At the same time, I was also getting my first exposure to calculus and time as the fourth dimension.  Ultimately (for better or worse), these two influences convinced me to pursue an undergraduate degree in mathematics and put me on the trajectory that I’m currently following today.

After finishing up undergraduate degrees in mathematics and biology, many valuable conversations with my dad and my growing interest in climate change (which I see as the greatest challenge yet faced by humanity) led me to the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology at Colorado State University.  I earned my MS degree studying the effects of ultraviolet radiation on leaf litter decomposition and carbon cycling, while broadening my course work to include computer and atmospheric science.  Finally, I made the move to large-scale science by beginning a PhD program at the University of Montana in the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group (NTSG) studying under Dr. Steve Running where it is my goal to become unstuck in space and time (nerdy Vonnegut reference).

My current work focuses on addresses large-scale climate, food, and energy issues via the application of global satellite data and ecosystem process models.  My interests and the topics I will most likely blog about include predictive ecology, remote sensing, ecosystem process modeling, planetary boundary theory, and global biogeochemistry.  Most recently, I completed a project in which we applied global satellite data on vegetation productivity to estimate the future potential for biomass as an energy source (bioenergy; blog post here; publications here and here).  Work currently in progress includes an analysis of global agricultural trends and the future potential for meeting a growing food demand as well as an analysis quantifying global nutrient availability and the future potential for the biosphere to respond to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Outside of science, I love fly-fishing (catch and release) – I am a Wyoming native and spent a lot of time growing up fishing the North Platte River with my dad and brother.  I am happiest in the wilderness, traveling, building things, and spending time with friends and family.  Finally, I try to practice what I preach – I am a minimalist, I’m making the transition to vegetarianism, and my current building project is a home addition equipped with a 2kW solar system.

So it goes (a final nerdy Vonnegut reference).

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3 thoughts on “Early Career Ecologist Profile: Meet Bill Smith

    • Thanks for the comment Matt and I enjoyed your blog post! My reasoning for transitioning to vegetarianism is as follows. On average, beef production requires an energy input to protein output of roughly 54:1; whereas dry beans, for example, require an energy input to protein output of roughly 2.5:1. The comparison regarding freshwater consumption is similar. No matter how you cut it, a vegetarian diet is less energy and resource intensive than a meat-based diet. This fact alone is not damning evidence against the consumption of meat. In fact, cattle fed via free grazing of marginal rangelands is arguable the best way to utilize otherwise unproductive land (assuming over-grazing is prevented). However, in the United States, ~70% of grain production (which could instead directly feed ~800 million humans) goes directly to feed farmed animals. By diverting 70% of the grain production in the United States to farm animals, we impact the supply and demand of grain globally, which impacts food pricing, which impacts the number of people able to afford a diet that meets the minimum nutrient requirements to sustain life (on top of this, Americans eat meat at about twice the global average). Thus, I do not fundamentally disagree with the idea of meat-consumption. Instead, I strongly disagree with over-production/over-consumption and the current trends associated with large-scale meat production. Aside from environmental reasons, large-scale meat production also has been linked to the inhumane treatment of animals, the spread of disease, over utilization of pesticides and antibiotics, etc. Ultimately, if people are going to eat meat, I strongly recommend knowing exactly where the meat you are eating is coming from (this means more than just making sure there is a generic “green” label on the packaging). I think most people would have strong moral objections to the majority of meat being sold in the United States, to the point that it may actually be easier to be a vegetarian than find suitable meat options. Ultimately, I think this is a very interesting subject and would love to hear other people’s opinions. I agree with your post Matt, population is one of the many “elephants in the room” and I talk more about the population issue in my next blog post (scheduled for Monday, Nov 19th). Also, stay tuned as I hope to further explore sustainable, environmentally-friendly diet options in future blog posts.

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