Editor's note: Dr. Emilio Bruna, an ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, answers a few commonly asked questions about how to begin a career in ecology.

"Y ou study what?"

I'm an ecologist, which means I study the relationship between plants, animals, and the physical environment they live in. I'm especially interested in the consequences of environmental changes that are caused by humans, such as the movement of plants and animals around the globe, climate change, and deforestation. This has led me to the central Amazon, where I've been investigating how the isolation of fragments of rain forest by logging and cattle ranching influences the growth of plants found in the forest understory. (More details are available at www.wec.ufl.edu/faculty/brunae.)

"What made you decide to study ecology?"

I've always been interested in plants, bugs, birds, and other living creatures. This manifested itself early in life, and I was fortunate to have indulgent parents--more than once my mother opened a drawer in my dresser only to find it full of frogs (or worse). Couple this fascination with an attraction to natural history and you get an adolescent who spent hours hiking and camping in the mountains of the southwestern United States. It was only natural for me to gravitate toward coursework in field biology as an undergraduate. In fact, my desire to study ecology was the major factor influencing my decision to enroll at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), which actually has a major in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution. The proximity to the beach probably didn't hurt either!

While at UCSD, I chased down any opportunity to help graduate students and faculty with their research projects. I tried everything from recording the vocalizations of crickets fighting for females to mapping the habitat preferences of lizards. This exposure to a broad range of topics helped me figure out what the day-to-day life of research was really all about. My involvement in one such project resulted in my being invited to stay at UCSD to complete a master's degree. I studied the ecology and evolution of lizards called skinks on islands in the Pacific. From there it was on to UC Davis for my doctorate, followed by a year of postdoctoral work at Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research.

All of this lead to my current gig as an assistant professor at the University of Florida. Along the way, I was fortunate to be mentored by some of the most outstanding scientists in the field of ecology--including Ted Case, Susan Harrison, and Sharon Strauss--as well as be surrounded by a cadre of highly motivated and energetic graduate students, many of whom have gone on to become stars in their own right.

"I think I'm interested in ecology, but I'm not really sure."

Are you interested in biology but not in going to medical school? Looking for something unique to do with your math degree? Try ecology! Most universities offer an introductory class on the subject, and many of these include field trips (you get to go hiking while your roommate is stuck in chemistry lab). If you get hooked, and think you might want to do this for a living, here are a few suggestions on how to get started.

  • Take a field course: Many universities offer field courses lasting from a week to a semester, as do educational institutes such as the Organization for Tropical Studies and the School for Field Studies. These courses are a fantastic learning experience and offer a chance to get into the planet's natural laboratory. While in college I spent 10 weeks in Costa Rica studying tropical ecology. This helped hone my research skills, made me a more attractive candidate for graduate school, and introduced me to a new country and culture.

     

  • Help a graduate student with research: Graduate students are always looking for help in the field, lab, or library. These experiences are a great way to get established in a lab (you may get a project of your own) and they will help you get the letters of recommendation that set you apart from all the other applicants for jobs or graduate school. Sometimes you can even get paid for it. Check to see if your university has an undergraduate research program for minority scholars, such as the Howard Hughes Summer Research Program or the McNair Scholars Program.

     

  • Talk to your professors: It's a fact. The students that come see me during office hours get better grades in my class, and good grades in college are the first step toward graduate school. I help students rewrite papers, go over their notes to check for missing information, and review the reading material with them. As a result they get better scores on tests, better letters of recommendation, and occasionally a tip on a job or graduate school application. In my opinion, students who don't visit faculty and teaching assistants during office hours are throwing away the money they spent on tuition.

  • "I'm not interested in becoming a professor. Can I still get a job with a degree in ecology?"

    While my own career path has led me to academia, this is by no means the only job for someone with a degree in ecology. In fact, the emphasis on writing and developing good analytical skills means you can do a host of things after graduation. Many of my students go on to become teachers, lawyers, photographers, or writers, as well as become involved in politics and public policy. However, they are all united by a common thread--an interest in the natural world and a desire to leave it as a legacy for future generations. Of course the best part of being an ecologist means that your "office space" sometimes requires you to hike through rain forests, navigate uncharted rivers, or visit exotic locations most people only dream about. It's really the icing on the cake.

    Emilio Bruna, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He may be reached by e-mail at brunae@wec.ufl.edu.