Early Career Ecologist Profile: Meet Sarah Bisbing

I study trees. I’m an ecologist. Oh, wait. I’m a scientist.

This is something I remind myself of nearly every day. And yet, this statement still catches me off guard at times. Let me tell you a bit about myself, and you’ll understand why.

The majority of my life experiences occurred within the limits of the city of Chicago. No romping through forests or camping with parents here. I did spend bits and pieces of my childhood outdoors (kick-the-can, anyone?), but the one-block play radius imposed by city living did not really allow us freedom for ‘exploration’ nor exposure to natural areas.

I could continue rambling on about why it’s shocking that I’m a scientist (and even more shocking that I’m a forest ecologist), but let’s get to the point. As a family, we preferred The Art Institute to The Science and Industry (I still make a point to visit the former when in Chicago). Digging in the soil meant planting tulip bulbs in the back yard. Family discussions centered around my father’s gourmet cooking and focused on music, art, and literature. My favorite classes were English, History, and Art. And yet, I’m a scientist.

I guess I found myself here because of my innate curiosity. I have always wondered. And questioned. And contemplated.

I am also coming to realize that I was drawn to the calming nature of a life surrounded by plants and in wild places. As a young adult, I had a strong desire to remove myself from the hustle and bustle of city life. I found my solace in nature. And in trees.

Let’s talk about trees. Fascinating things, aren’t they (nod your heads here)? These foundational species are so quiet in their dominance of the landscape – quietly prevailing. I love trees. And forests. And, I cannot hep but wonder about them and the processes that drive their occurrence.

So, here I am – a forest ecologist, asking questions and pursuing answers on the where, how, and why behind tree species distributions. My current research utilizes manipulative field experiments, molecular lab work, empirical data modeling, and greenhouse studies to understand the drivers of species distributions across the landscape. Projects are underway on a gradient of landscape scales, ranging from a local transplant experiment in Southeast Alaska to a range-wide study of the genetic population structure of Pinus contorta (western North America’s most widespread conifer).

I have grown into a strongly-quantitative scientist, but I am especially loving the creative nature associated with ecological research. Maybe those favorite childhood topics ARE still being pursued? Writing is a critical component of scientific research; this research is focused on ‘the history’ of forest species; and creativity is required in the implementation of most field experimentation. Hmmm. Guess I haven’t strayed as far as I thought.

Can I imagine a different career path? Not a chance.

I do try to take this whole ‘science career’ thing one step further by attempting to make it accessible to more than just my peers. Maybe it’s that city girl in me that makes me want to communicate ecological research and connect it back to those with little to no understanding of it. I feel VERY strongly that ecological knowledge is most valuable when 1) it has relevance to application (in my case, conservation & land management), and 2) it is shared with a broader audience. I often struggle to relay the relevance of my work to my friends and family. I started this blog in order to provide a venue for practicing this process. I’m really proud of what we’ve done here.

Beyond my science (and science communication), I live a life that sticks to my roots. My fiancé and I love to cook and do our best to work through each issue of Bon Appetit. I relax by cuddling with my 12 year-old lab, gardening, baking, or doing crafts-y things (currently making these banners for my wedding). I also spend quite a bit of time on my road bike, which has supported me in rides all across western North America (Alaska, British Columbia, California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and the Yukon Territory). I honestly have a passion for all things fitness, so I also find time to run, practice yoga, do crossfit, ice climb, and teach spinning classes at Become Fit. Oh, and my dad has already started calling me ‘Dr. Bis.’ Almost there, mom and dad. Promise.

Man, I still ended up rambling. That’s another thing about me . . . I’m a chatty Cathy. Tee hee.

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2 thoughts on “Early Career Ecologist Profile: Meet Sarah Bisbing

  1. It’s official: Dr Sarah Bisbing, July 8, 2013. Your mom and dad can be proud to make this announcement in Chicagoland. You kept your promise to them…..and to yourself. Continued success in your future endeavors.

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