ESA Interviews – Juliana Mulroy

I interviewed awesome ecologists at the 2011 Ecological Society of America meeting in exchange for reader donations, which paid for my conference attendance. This is one in a series of posts about those interviews.

Last year at ESA I interviewed a bunch of awesome ecologists and promised to blog about those interviews. I wrote up five of the interviews late last summer, but saved a few for later to inspire you to submit your abstracts for the 2012 ESA meeting (due in February!)!1

This post is about Juliana Mulroy. Interviewing her was hard, but interesting, because of many wonderful interruptions. We spoke while she was tending ESA’s Historical Records booth, where she told story after story about early ecologists to the curious wandering the exhibit hall. Then there were many, many people coming by to say hello and catch up. Mulroy chose to teach at a small liberal arts college instead of a big university so she could make a bigger difference in student’s lives, and it’s very clear that she has.

Why do we care about ESA’s history?

Preserving published science is relatively easy, but it’s harder to document where that science came from – the ideas that develop slowly through letters and conversations before being tested or the ones that don’t work or are discarded too early. As someone who currently builds and maintains so many of those relationships, Mulroy is perfect for her role on ESA’s Historical Records Committee.

Mulroy got involved with the Historical Records Committee (HRC) at ESA about 6 years ago. She thinks it’s important for ecologists to know our history so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it. Research is hard work, and we don’t want to waste time recreating the wheel, but in many cases we are! We’re losing natural history knowledge and we don’t have time re-record all that information since populations, communities, and ecosystems are changing – or disappearing! There’s also tons of fantastic historical baseline data out there – but we don’t know how to access it or it’s too time consuming to find because it’s buried in some paper archive or we don’t even know it’s there. That’s where the HRC comes in. The work they do should help us overcome those barriers to accessing knowledge and data that early ecologists gathered. Plus,

understanding their lives in the context of their times helps us understand our own.

I asked Mulroy about some of the challenges for preserving ESA’s history. One of the biggest turns out to be getting to material before someone else culls it! Bereaved relatives often throw out the truly important things that reveal networks of ecologists and developing ideas, like Christmas cards, marginalia, and personal correspondence. (Now I’m terrified that students and historians might someday read the clueless notes and questions I write in paper margins.)

It’s also challenging to uncover the kinds of information and connections that science historians are interested in in paper archives:

It is hard work for any historian to  find the gems buried below the “top level” of a Finding Aid to any collection, and most archives have a back-log of material waiting to be catalogued – and then there is the stuff that never gets to archives at all! Archivists really have an impossible task – how can they “make visible” items of interest when it is impossible to know what will be of interest?

Mulroy compared searching such archives to using the internet sans Google. She has hopes for a digital future for the history of ecology, but it’s not here yet!

Women and minorities in ESA

Ecology is a fairly young science – women got the right to vote in the US about the same time that ESA got started and was hardly 50 years old by the time the civil rights movement was underway. I wondered how ESA and the science of ecology may have been influenced by the relative equality of women and minorities so early in its history (compared to something like physics, for example).

Mulroy pointed out that even though ESA had its first female president in 1950 (E. Lucy Braun), the next wasn’t for another 36 years. While the balance of male to female ESA presidents is much more equal in the last few decades, the status of women in ecology isn’t all hunky dory, especially early in ESA’s history. Mulroy pointed out that (coinciding with the heyday of second wave feminism and legal changes) there was definitely a big transition for women in ESA in the 1970s. More women were accepted into graduate programs, more women got jobs, and consequently the “face” of ecology changed. Mulroy suspects that when an ecological subdiscipline reaches a critical mass of women and minorities, the dynamics change. The tone may become more communal and supportive, and attract those who are more cooperative and collaborative, and tend to involve more people outside of the academy. Overall, Mulroy thinks increasing diversity among scientists influences both the range of questions asked and the answers deemed acceptable. She looks forward to a time when institutional and other pressures change so that  there’s more of a focus on answering the question, on the science, instead of “just getting a name on a paper.”

I was impressed with a story Mulroy told me about the plant population section of ESA, which Mulroy has been very involved in for decades – she was section chair just last year. The plant population section of ESA was co-founded by two women and a small group of enthusiastic male and female colleagues, and started out with lots of women in the field. One of the first things they did as an ESA section was to start a silent auction to support graduate student travel to ESA – both the mode and goal of the fundraising were firsts for ESA. They sold crafts that members of the section made themselves in the hobbies that kept them sane in the crazy academic world. This wasn’t just unique in providing lots of support for people lower down in the academic hierarchy, but also as a positive acknowledgement of life outside work and science.

Mulroy recommends Jean Langenheim’s book, The Odyssey of a Woman Field Scientist, for more about the experience of women in ecology and the history of plant ecology.

Mulroy recognizes that (white) women have moved further up ESA’s hierarchy than other historically under-represented groups,

perhaps because they were “waiting in the wings.” Women have been involved in ESA from the beginning, but (because of societal and institutional constraints) often not in regular positions (i.e., jobs). As jobs opened up and women became “official,” they had more motivation / need to be visible in ESA as well as professionally. And ESA began recognizing the need for diversity within its ranks and leadership.

When Mulroy says women were waiting in the wings, she’s referring (at least in part) to early male ecologist’s wives. These women often served as their husbands’ scientific assistants and did a great deal of important ecology in their own right, even if they were never properly credited for their work. Because the same prejudices that prevented minorities from becoming ecologists also inhibited interracial marriage, women of color were not in such an advantageous position when it came to entering ecology, and Mulroy doesn’t deny that ESA has work to do –

With other under-represented groups it is tougher.

ESA is working to change that through excellent support of programs like SEEDS.

Science and health

I partly chose to speak with Mulroy because she’s had some health issues during her career. I’ve struggled with being sick and trying to be a scientist at the same time, and wanted her advice. She says

While I am limited physically, my creativity and curiosity remain undimmed; thanks to collaborators across the country, I’ve been able to continue research and professional service in plant ecology and the history of ecology.

Hearing what she had to say about continuing her career after some health problems was encouraging to me – just because I can’t follow the path I imagine doesn’t mean I won’t end up doing something awesome. She also has advice for the ecologists with bodies that are more cooperative: if you can, do it now – whatever you’re interested in! When Mulroy was young, she hiked all over the Andes and clearly treasures memories of that experience.

I recommend finding her at ESA this August and asking her about how she ended up getting a PhD or why she thinks Draba verna is so cool!


1. LIES. Actually, I was just too busy reading papers and going swing dancing to write up the rest of the interviews up  after ESA. But do submit an abstract for ESA and then either apply for or donate to some travel awards.