Science Story April 2022

Our growing board

There are three new members of RMBL’s Board of Trustees, and they’re bringing nothing less than a tsunami of scientific insights and practical experience. Let’s meet them.

Dr. Susan Avery is well-seasoned in the art of guiding scientific organizations through board leadership. She is the president emerita of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She chairs the board of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research on behalf of the National Science Foundation. She is on the board of the American Institute of Physics, on the advisory committee for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a member of the board of the Exxon Mobile Corporation. She is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Meteorological Society.

Dr. Avery is a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has served as a distinguished visiting faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In addition to authoring more than 110 peer-reviewed articles, she has given science presentations to both professional and lay audiences. It was after one such talk at RMBL that she was approached to sit on the RMBL board. She discovered RMBL when she first visited Crested Butte to ski.

What impressed Dr. Avery about RMBL were the long-term data sets, the comprehensive studies of the East River basin, and the strategy to support the research of whole systems, not just isolated species or processes. She feels that her experience with ocean and atmosphere research will add a unique perspective to the RMBL board. We second that.

Dr. Elvia Meléndez-Ackerman launched her science career on the shoulders of Dr. Diane Campbell, long-time researcher and RMBL board member. Dr. Campbell was her PhD advisor at the University of California, Irvine. In fact, the graduate student’s first trip to RMBL was with Dr. Campbell’s family in 1990. Inspired by Dr. Campbell’s long-term experimental field on flower evolution in the genus Ipomopsis, Dr. Meléndez-Ackerman focused her dissertation on natural hybridization by two related wildflower species, Ipomopsis aggregata and I. tenuituba (scarlet gilia and slendertube skyrocket), and how different traits in these plants — colors, size, nectar — would influence the behaviors of pollinators and in turn, how these behaviors affected seed production and ultimately the plant’s fitness.

In experiments, Dr. Meléndez-Ackerman looked at how hummingbirds and hawkmoths reacted to the flower’s form and nectar alone by painting all flowers the same color. She also took flowers with the same form and manipulated the color and nectar. Among other things, she found that flower visitation by hummingbirds tended to be more consistent than that of hawkmoths and that flower color, size, and nectar variation influenced pollinator behavior and plant fitness.

These days, Dr. Meléndez-Ackerman is a Full Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico – Río Piedras. Her current research includes socio-ecological systems and projects dealing with endangered species in protected areas of Puerto Rico. She also chairs the board of the Friends of Amigos del El Yunque, an organization supporting the US Forest Service in Puerto Rico.

Besides the picture-postcard beauty of the Gunnison Valley, Dr. Meléndez-Ackerman was taken with RMBL not only because of its cutting-edge environmental research but because of the collegial atmosphere as well. She remembers taking walks with Dr. Paul Ehrlich and talking about science in Spanish so he could improve his fluency. “I got to meet so many famous researchers,” she said. “People whose papers I’ve read — they’re there.”

Having spent many years in the tropics after earning her PhD, Dr. Meléndez-Ackerman looks forward to returning to RMBL, for her spot on the board and her escape to the mountains.

Dr. Lara Souza is the Director of the Oklahoma Biological Survey and Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology at the University of Oklahoma. She fell into science as an undergraduate in journalism when she decided to take a botany class because she was growing a garden. She was bit by the science bug instantly.

A few classes later, her environmental studies professor asked for volunteers to help him take measurements in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It sounded fun, so that weekend she found herself in the middle of a hardwood forest measuring the CO2 uptake of leaves and thinking, “he gets paid to do this; how cool is that!” Before long she had a Master’s degree in biology and then a PhD from the University of Tennessee.

Her co-advisor was Dr. Nathan Sanders, and her post-doctoral advisor was Dr. Aimee Classen, both fixtures at RMBL. As soon as Dr. Souza landed her position at O.U., they both pushed her to make a road trip to RMBL to explore research possibilities. So in 2012, she packed up the car and with her husband and four-month-old daughter and drove to RMBL. There she met with Jennie Reithel, David Inouye, and other researchers and almost immediately started collaborating with Drs. Classen and Sanders. She conducted experiments that involved removing both common and uncommon species from a meadow to see how quickly the system would recover.

In 2019, she joined Dr. Stephanie Kivlin, Dr. Jen Rudgers and Dr. Classen to harvest all the data from the 39-year-old warming meadow experiment. Her collaborations continued to grow. Finally, in 2021, after she had received tenure at O.U. and was established as the Director of the Oklahoma Biological Survey, she accepted Dr. Ian Billick’s invitation to join the board.

Now she sees herself in a pivotal role of recruiting and retaining underrepresented groups in science, and she’s part of RMBL’s diversity inclusion community. A native of Brazil, she does most of her research at O.U. but works in Brazil as well. Then in July, she comes to RMBL to be part of the board and part of the community, bringing her family along for the experience. “It continues to be a win-win on the family side and the professional side,” she said. It’s a win for all of us.

Susan Avery, PhD, holds an MS degree in Physics and a PhD in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois. With faculty positions at the University of Illinois and the University of Colorado, Boulder, her research has focused on atmospheric circulation and precipitation, climate variability and water resources, and the development of new radar techniques and instruments for remote sensing. Her scientific leadership positions include President and Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, President of the American Meteorological Society, and Board Chair of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. In addition to singing and hiking, she’s fond of four-wheel driving tours through the mountains.

Elvia Meléndez-Ackerman, PhD, is a Full Professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Center for Applied Tropical Ecology and Conservation, University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras. Her research focuses on evolutionary biology, botany, conservation, urban green infrastructure, and socio-ecological systems. She has projects with IITF-Forest Service, USDA-NIFA, and USFW and DRNA. She believes that sustainable forestry is key to increasing the adaptive capacity and resilience of regions exposed to extreme atmospheric events.

Lara Souza, PhD, is Associate Professor of Plant Biology at the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology at the University of Oklahoma and Director of the Oklahoma Biological Survey. Her research focuses on the role of global change, such as biological invasions and climatic change, in shaping the structure of plant communities and associated ecosystem processes. She lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with her husband and daughter.