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Interview: Jill Baron on becoming President of ESA

The Ecological Society of America, or ESA, is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of scientists that aims to promote ecological science, foster its communication, and use it to inform public policy. NREL’s very own Jill Baron was recently elected the President of ESA, and we sat down to talk with her about this great and well-deserved honor.

What was your path to becoming president of ESA?

I’ve always had this philosophy that we should try to leave the world a better place than we found it.  While some individuals can do this (thank you Margaret Mead), working with a professional organization with similar goals lends added weight and momentum.  And since I’m an ecologist and not a granola-crunching tree-hugging environmental guerilla, ESA seemed like a good home.  Solid scientific findings are a good foundation for understanding and interpreting natural phenomena; ESA communicates scientific results to policy and decision makers, students, and the public.  I started volunteering for ESA committees and positions a long time ago.  I served on the Governing Board under three great Presidents: Pam Matson, Steve Carpenter, and Jerry Melillo; they taught me a lot that I hope I can pass on.

As chair of the ESA governing board, what is your vision?

ESA is a very big ship and in the grand scheme of things I am a short-timer.  So the primary goal is not to try to change things much that already work very well.  ESA has a highly professional paid staff in Washington and Ithaca – The Governing Board guides with advice and suggestions, but mostly we help the professionals do their jobs.  My vision, and that of many previous Presidents, is to mobilize the 10,000 ESA members who make up ESA to try to make a difference in Society.  Think of it!  If 10,000 ESA members all took on one project beyond their own research that communicates the science of ecology to the rest of the world – we could make a difference.  Sadly, this is a very hard sell to some ecologists. My vision and reality are not completely aligned.

Are there any key changes you aim to accomplish?

Why yes! I’m glad you asked this question.  Terry Chapin initiated the Earth Stewardship agenda.  And he asked me to carry it on.  After thinking about it for an entire year (what is this squishy, environmental-sounding thing?) it dawned on me it is the perfect vehicle for trying to make a difference.  Business makes the world go round, so my goal is to begin talking with corporations about how the science of ecology can help them move toward more sustainable use of resources.  It’s been highly successful so far.  We’ve made contacts with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, arranged training in Business-speak from PricewaterhouseCoopers (with more to come), begun a discussion with the sustainability coordinators of some big corporations about internships, life cycle analysis, and data gathering.  And we are planning a large demonstration project for the Sacramento 2014 ESA meeting organized by Alex Felsen from Yale on treating urban and landscape design sustainability goals as hypotheses to be tested and adjusted.

How will being ESA president interact with your positions at NREL and USGS?

There is a lot of synergy between what I’m doing with ESA, the research applications of our Loch Vale and Western Mountain Initiative research, and the synthesis efforts I facilitate through the Powell Center.  The goals are very similar: promote sound science that leads to emergent knowledge that can be used to help solve problems.  ESA is a time eater, no doubt, but it would be great to have everyone at NREL and USGS actively working with ESA on education, diversity, and policy issues, Earth Stewardship initiatives, speaking out for continued science funding.  And of course, I expect all of NREL to publish early and often in our great journals.

Are there opportunities for greater NREL/ESS involvement with ESA? Does this create any unique opportunities for graduate students, either in general or specifically within NREL/ESS?

Huge opportunities.  Both the Student Section and the Biogeosciences Section are vibrant, fun places to meet other scientists and students and get involved in ESA activities. Plus, they offer travel grants and awards.  The Student Section elects a representative to the ESA Governing Board; an NREL student should run for that – it’s great experience. There are many other Sections, too, if biogeosciences are not your interest.  We also just elected new officers for the Rocky Mountain Chapter (Rick Black and Todd Crowl; call them up and volunteer!!); there are so many things a regional branch of ESA can accomplish with some energetic members.

EcoPress is meant as a tool to integrate with social media and communicate NREL science, in order to encourage conversation and collaboration. From the perspective of your new position, how do you plan to interact with or use social media and communications outlets like EcoPress? 

Scientists magnify their impact by being active in a professional society.  As a biogeochemist and ecosystem ecologist, I’m particularly at home in, and proud of, the Ecological Society of America.  I love the annual meetings for their excitement and stimulation.  There is always too much to do, and I come home exhausted, but it’s the place to present our best scientific results, engage in debates, learn about job and funding opportunities, take short courses in communication, policy, or statistical techniques, learn new education tools, meet old friends, participate in sessions on lifestyle and career issues, play music, drink beer, go on field trips.  I would like to see online tools like EcoPress supporting these kinds of interactions. For example ESA has an active blog and twitter feed, as well as a Facebook page.