The Alumnus Profile is a weekly feature that focuses on an alumnus’ experiences both today and during his or her time at Williams. Margaret D. Loman’73, Ph.D., executive director of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, talked with Record staff writer Drew Newman this week.
Loman is a recipient of the Williams College Bicentennial medal for alumni and is one of the world’s leading scientists in tree canopy research. Loman returned to Williams to teach biology and environmental science from 1989 to 1991. Her recently published book, Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology, is available in the Schow Science Library.
What was your most memorable experience at Williams?
My most memorable experience at Williams was winter study. I went in my freshman year to the Florida Everglades and Keys with Professor Lawrence to study philosophy of nature. I was enchanted with field biology and birds, but camping in the keys and seeing the large wading birds of Florida for my first time really got me enthusiastic about seeing more of the world outside of my familiar New England.
After being a student at Williams, what was it like to teach here?
I loved returning to Williams and teaching there. I considered it a great privilege because I possessed a lot of historical knowledge and empathy for students that many of my fellow faculty did not have; and also because the Hopkins Forest and Stone Hill and other special places were a joy to rediscover and share with both students and my children. I also loved doing some of the things that meant so much to me as a student, such as inviting my students to my home and cooking for them, and taking them on occasional field trips, and introducing them to famous visiting scientists who happened by.
With your work studying tree canopies, did you ever have a chance to study at Hopkins Forest?
My formative tree research was done at Hopkins Forest and it continues to be one of my favorite places on Earth. I did extensive research on tree growth as an undergraduate, and then returned as a professor to build the first canopy walkway in North America in our very own Hopkins Forest. This is also highlighted in the book in a whole chapter. The walkway brought a lot of media attention to the talents of our Williams College biology students, with numerous articles and radio shows about some of the discoveries and adventures of the Williams students who worked up in the temperate forest canopy.
How did you start studying tree canopies?
I started studying trees at Williams, and then I began studying canopies when I did my Ph.D. in Australia and suddenly realized, when confronting the tall trees of the tropical rain forest, that most of the forest was way out of reach or sight. This challenged me to climb and observe and ask questions about the treetops.
Although you are now the executive director of Selby, are you able to continue your research?
As executive director, I am less able to conduct day-to-day research. I have passed the torch on to younger scientists for a few of my projects, but remain actively involved in a few others and also remain actively involved in planning international collaborative canopy research projects, which is probably a natural progression for scientists as they move from individual-based research to working as a team with colleagues.
I read in Selby’s Green Light newsletter that you led a trip in November of 1999 to the Amazon rainforest. Do you lead trips often?
I lead quite a few trips to rainforests, both for Selby and also Williams College. I am leading a boat trip on the Amazon in January 2001 for Williams and Selby. We have one stateroom left – why don’t you sign up?
How has your time at Williams as a student and professor helped your research and life?
My time at Williams helped me in so many ways, many of which are difficult to quantify. My friends and roommates have been lifelong mentors and influences. Even though none of them are research scientists, we all continue to communicate about our careers and ideas, which has helped me find focus and also communicate my science better to others.
My time in Hopkins Forest helped me learn to love trees and the natural world, and to be inspired to conserve it for my children and their children. I worry so much that future generations will not have the opportunity to walk in a healthy forest if we continue to alter the environment so severely from human activities. I believe everyone should visit the Amazon in the next 10 years, or it simply will not be the wonderful, pristine and intricate place that it is right now.
My time as a professor reminded me about how important it is to convey the importance of conservation biology on to students. They do not seem to get much of that in their education these days, and even less of the rudiments of natural sciences. Students need to know about ecosystems and their complexity if they are to make decisions regarding global issues, regardless of their career. We need more and expanded programs in conservation biology, to better solve the challenges of our global future.