Brian Harvey might not be able to pinpoint the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a professor, but he can definitely recall a series of “pinch me” moments that gradually crystallized his dream—a dream he’s now realized, as he will be joining our faculty this spring as an assistant professor of forest ecosystem science and services!
Brian, who was born in Cleveland but spent most of his childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, double-majored in geography and environmental studies as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. After he graduated, one of his first jobs was with an environmental consulting firm, where he was involved in a lot of remediation clean-up at industrial sites. “It was a really good experience in terms of working with all the different stakeholders in environment management,” he says, “from businesses and municipalities to state and federal governments.”
Still, though he found much of the work fairly interesting, Brian says the job mostly had the unintended effect of rekindling his interest in ecology and natural sciences—and therefore a desire to return to school.
So he then enrolled in a master’s program at San Francisco State University to study geography and natural resource management. “I went back to school to get back into ecology, and particularly forest ecology, and I did my thesis research on a post-fire study of the Point Reyes National Seashore.”
Resurveying an area that had burned in 1995, Brian was able to explore more than a decade of post-fire succession to see how the forest ecosystem had responded. “Those years at San Francisco State were when things really started to click for me,” he says. “I realized this was my dream job, to be able to combine research in forest ecology with teaching and mentoring.”
That revelation solidified his decision to continue on in graduate school for a Ph.D. Since he’d always been fascinated by the Yellowstone fires of 1988, he reached out to one of the pioneers of research in that area, Professor Monica Turner from the University of Wisconsin, and joined her lab to focus on forest disturbance ecology in the Northern Rockies. “That was sort of the next pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment,” he says, “walking around in Yellowstone in the forests I’d seen as a kid go up in flames in 1988, and here I was getting to study this stuff for my Ph.D. It was unbelievable.”
While he was wrapping up his doctoral program in 2015—he had actually defended his dissertation in 2014 just before the birth of his son, who turned a year and half this August—he started looking for postdoc opportunities. He ended up applying to and getting selected for a prestigious Smith Conservation Research Fellowship, and he based his project at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Founded by Dr. David H. Smith, a pediatrician who developed a vaccine for childhood spinal meningitis and later became an active conservationist, Smith Fellowships support early-career scientists working in the field of conservation biology. The Society for Conservation Biology now runs the program, which brings in five fellows a year, provides funding for two years and allows them to design their own projects (SEFS Professor Josh Lawler was also a Smith Fellow from the class of 2004).
Professional training and development are also central elements of the program, as Smith Fellows attend three weeklong retreats a year. Traveling to different sites, they gain skills in everything from science communication and working with the media, to how to translate their research into successful environmental policy and management. “For me,” says Brian, “the Smith Fellows program has been a tremendous foundation for fulfilling my social contract as a scientist—making sure my research is not only broadening our understanding of the natural world, but also providing a solid foundation for informed decision-making.”
The core of the Smith Fellows program, of course, is the fellows’ proposed research project, and Brian has been looking at the phenomenon of subalpine fir decline in the Rocky Mountains. Largely overlooked since it never significantly factored into timber production, subalpine fir has suddenly gained prominence as some of its peers—especially lodgepole pine and spruce—have suffered extensively from bark beetle outbreaks. Mountain pine beetles and spruce beetles have killed trees across large tracts of forest, and Brian says a lot of research has identified subalpine fir has a critical stopgap species to keep habitat intact until the next generation of spruce and pine can establish. Yet now subalpine fir populations have also started to decline, so Brian is trying to figure out why that’s happening. “Resilience, or the capacity of forests to ‘bounce back’ after disturbance,” he says, “is critical for maintaining many of the ecosystem services we associate with forests—water supply, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and recreation opportunities.”
This research will keep Brian plenty busy through the fall and winter until he completes his fellowship, and then he’ll begin his move to Seattle. His official start date with SEFS is March 16, 2017, just in time for spring quarter—and he can’t wait to get here.
“As a forest ecologist, I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be in the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “You’ve got an enormous wealth of foundational forest ecology research from many of the folks at UW, and at the same time we’re starting to see the emergence of some really big changes in forests from wildfires and bark beetle outbreaks in the last several years.”
Brian sees a growing need to understand when, where and why these disturbances are happening, and to answer the critical question of how our forest ecosystems will respond. “A lot of my work focuses on understanding the mechanisms of resilience in these forests,” he says, “and then how processes play out across different spatial and temporal scales. Disturbances like fires and insect outbreaks are natural and important components of ‘normally’ functioning forests. At the same time, climate change and the associated steep increases in disturbance activity can trigger big changes in forests, setting different trajectories for decades to centuries.”
More broadly, Brian says he’s looking forward to connecting with graduate students and colleagues in the school and university, and collaborators and stakeholders across the Pacific Northwest. “The key theme in my research is looking at how forests change over space and time, and the role disturbance plays in those changes,” he says, “and I really like to use multiple approaches and tools to answer questions. That opens up a lot of opportunities to work with grad students who have a diverse skillset, and also to collaborate with folks across a broad spectrum of disciplines.”
We can’t wait to welcome Brian and his family to Seattle this spring, and to start harnessing his tremendous energy and ideas. “I absolutely love what I do,” he says, “and I’m excited to interact with folks who are as enthusiastic as I am!”
Photos © Brian Harvey.