Interview with Rachel Gallery

The University of Arizona ecologist on Colombia’s natural diversity, her lucky break, and the challenges facing other aspiring scientists

May 9, 2019
Rachel Gallery
Source: Jake Bryant

Rachel Gallery is an associate professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, who is using a Fulbright Scholars Award for a half-year study of tropical alpine grasslands and wetlands in Colombia.

What are you doing in Colombia?
My husband and I are both on sabbatical. We’ve been here since January and we’re based in Bogotá. My host is Eloisa Lasso, a professor of plant ecology at the University of the Andes, and we're testing plant responses and the soil responses in tropical alpine grasslands and wetlands. These tropical alpine, or montane, grasslands and wetlands are called páramo.

What does the work involve?
In 2016, Dr Lasso set up a series of experiments in these páramo using artificially warming plots – octagonal chambers made of durable plastic that capture and amplify ultraviolet radiation. Dr Lasso is looking at the plant response, and I focus more on the soil and soil microbials side – the fungi and bacteria that live in soil and are really important for decomposition, for cycling carbon and cycling nutrients. It’s estimated that there are more than 5,000 species of plants in the páramo, and about half found only in the páramo. The páramo are also a major water supply for hundreds of millions of people throughout Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. If you begin digging down in the páramo, that really dark rich organic layer of soil, which signifies a lot of carbon, can go down a metre, compared with only a couple of centimetres in a tropical forest. This means the páramo are really important in carbon storage. And it means they might play a very disproportionate role in driving climate feedback, by releasing a lot of that carbon as the climate warms and dries.

How might your research influence the people of Bogotá to do things differently?
It might be important for them to think about how to preserve larger areas, and not use them for development – for example, for ranching or building large housing developments – because they’re so important in terms of carbon and water. Because these are montane systems, the plants grow very slowly, and potentially recover from disturbances very slowly. And there are lots of issues right now potentially with invasive species moving in, which could change the water dynamic, or the fire dynamic.

How receptive are people to this?
The people really value the páramo and recognise it for what it is – it’s gorgeous, has lots of biodiversity, and people associate it with being an important water supply.

How did you get into this work?
I’m definitely not one of those people who always knew that they wanted to be a scientist. In college, I was thinking that journalism seemed like a perfect job – you write about things that you care about, you help share information with people, and you get to travel the world. Well, it turns out that you get to do all of those things as a scientist.

Did you have a formative moment?
I found a job announcement pinned to a bulletin board in our biology department at American University [in Washington], and I applied to it, honestly, because it was paid. It turned out that it was to be a field technician at the Cedar Creek reserve in Minnesota, where the principal investigator, David Tilman, already was one of the most famous plant community ecologists. Some of the most seminal papers on biodiversity and community function come from the Cedar Creek area; I stumbled into it, and it set my entire career. I met friends there who are still colleagues and collaborators. From one scientist there I got my next job, to work in Panama, and for the next five years I was a field biologist, working in places that include the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the big island of Hawaii, and Yellowstone National Park. I could have done that forever, as field biology is just such a wonderful job – you live in gorgeous places, you work outside. But there are downsides – I didn’t have health insurance, I barely made any money. So after about five years, I started my PhD work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What do you want to accomplish next?
I think some of the most important work I’m doing is mentoring. I currently serve on the advisory board of a national not-for-profit that's called 500 Women Scientists, which now has more than 150 local groups worldwide. And in my research group, I’ve mentored more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and high school students. Everybody comes in with a different background, and I think I can be very helpful in helping them to, in essence, master the scientific method, think critically, figure out how to distil information in a useful way, and then to be able to ask the next question.

What could the academic community be doing to help more?
Even at a very young age, girls are just as excited about science as boys are. But by the time girls reach middle school or high school, they’ve accumulated all these negative experiences – microaggressions, bullying, etc – that undermine their confidence and their ability. But that ability is there, and we know that because there are lots of women in science. The real challenge is changing the structure of our institutions so they don’t penalise people – for example, for having families. We also need to reduce bias, given that studies show that both women and men are biased against writings with a woman’s name, resulting in lower funding and citation rates. Only in the past couple of years, these conversations really have been happening at high levels of universities. That gives me a little bit of hope, but it’s not like I’m thinking this is a rosy we’ve-fixed-it-all situation either.


Karen Edmond is joining King’s College London as professor of child health. Professor Edmond began her medical career as a consultant paediatrician and public health physician working in the deprived Indigenous communities of northern Australia. She is currently United Nations Children’s Fund chief of health for Afghanistan, based in Kabul. “The UN is highly effective but is under such intense international scrutiny that it can’t take risks,” said Professor Edmond. “I want the freedom to have ideas, lead programmes and push the agenda.”

Marlene Tromp has been named the next president of Boise State University in Idaho. Professor Tromp, who takes up her new role in July, has been provost and executive vice-chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, since 2017. She said that she would be “proud to lead the dedicated faculty and staff” of an institution that would have “an extraordinary impact on our rapidly growing city and state”.

Mark Horton, a presenter on BBC Two’s Coast, has become a professorial research fellow at the Royal Agricultural University’s Cultural Heritage Institute. Professor Horton joins a project that will see a range of new heritage-based degrees taught in Swindon.

Trisha Craig has been appointed vice-president of engagement at Yale-NUS College. She is currently dean for international and professional experience.

Edinburgh Napier graduate Barbara Kidd has returned to her old university to take up the role of head of development. She was previously director of fundraising and communications at the charity Children 1st.

Lesia Crumpton-Young has been appointed provost and senior vice-president for academic affairs at Morgan State University in Maryland. She is currently vice-president for research and institutional advancement at Tennessee State University.

Lynn Boyd is the new dean of science and mathematics at Arkansas State University. She is currently a professor of biology at Middle Tennessee State University.

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