Good Life

Erica Smithwick sets out on a ‘grand adventure’

Erica Smithwick is an ecologist and associate professor of geography whose work has taken her around the world.
Erica Smithwick is an ecologist and associate professor of geography whose work has taken her around the world. Photo provided

The title of “Globe-Trotting Adventurer” has officially passed from Indiana Jones to Erica Smithwick, an associate professor at Penn State whose research in the field of physical geography has taken her deep into the forests of South Africa. Smithwick happily balances continent hopping with a busy family life.

“It forces me (willingly) to not work all the time and instead to devote emotional energy in other areas of my life, which I think is so healthy,” Smithwick said.

Q: You’re examining how fire patterns influence soil biogeochemistry and carbon storage. Was there a specific question or observation you made that prompted that line of inquiry?

A: Fires are increasing in severity and intensity in recent decades due to a combination of changes in climate, past fire suppression and human ignitions. In the U.S, fire management costs more than $2 billion annually in recent years. These fires also release carbon to the atmosphere, potentially exacerbating changes in climate. The work I am doing in South Africa looks at the other end of the equation ... how much carbon can be taken up by a growing forest.

Q: You teach as well as practice. Do you think that the sciences can be intimidating to students? Why?

A: No! Science is a grand adventure of uncovering the mystery of life and can be so fun. I try to instill this in my students. As an ecologist, you get to go out in nature and try to listen to its stories. We use fancy equipment and lab methods to understand those patterns ... and fancy statistics to analyze them ... but the goal is to unravel the mystery.

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