This Ecologist Finds Clues to Anthropocene Survival in Ice Age Extinctions

Whether she’s reconstructing the Pleistocene world or advocating for a more inclusive science community, Jacquelyn Gill is all about interdisciplinary approaches.

|
Jan 26 2018, 4:30pm

Rei Watanabe

Jacquelyn Gill describes herself as “an Ice Age ecologist in a warming world,” a characterization that reflects her lifelong fascination with change—be it environmental, political, or personal. As both an expert on the Pleistocene era and an advocate for social justice, Gill has made a name for herself as an interdisciplinary dynamo who is outspoken about the need for a more open and inclusive science sector.

“I like it to lump it under the umbrella of ‘science for everyone,’” she told me over the phone from her office at the University of Maine, where she is an assistant professor of climate science. “Science should be publicly funded, transparent, accessible, and done in the public interest.”

Gill’s values evolved over a lifetime of embracing different cultures and ideas, beginning with the constant upheavals that come with the “ping-pong ball childhood of many military brats,” she said (her father served in the Navy). She learned early on to appreciate her family’s nomadic lifestyle, recalling how they would bounce around national parks and wilderness areas “in the classic road trip model.”

“That instilled a love of landscapes in me,” she said. “Stopping at every rest stop, where everything was always different, made me grow up loving the natural world.”

Middle school “squashed” that early love of science out of her, she said, so she found herself drifting toward the humanities instead. After a stint at Goddard College in Vermont, which she calls “the hippie college in the woods”—three members of Phish went there, after all—she transferred to the College of the Atlantic in Maine, which she accordingly dubs “the hippie college by the sea.” With far-ranging interests in anthropology, literature, theatre, and conservation, she was a wandering mind in search of purpose.

That calling came to her in a revelatory moment, while exploring an ancient sea cave that had risen, over eons of geological tumult, to the hilltops of Acadia National Park. Standing there in that unique environment, Gill was riveted by the backstory of this once-submerged habitat.

“I really think it was this interdisciplinary moment,” Gill said. “I’ve always been interested in history, drama, theatre, and books, and I wonder if it all just comes down to narratives—being primed to see the narrative in the landscape, because of my love of stories. It’s realizing that stories are not just the purview of the arts. We can have stories in science too. Change is a story.”

To build on this awakening, Gill obtained a BSc in human ecology from the College of the Atlantic, then moved to the University of Wisconsin to pursue a PhD in geography. Entranced with the iconic megafauna of the Pleistocene world—especially mammoths—she gained a reputation for evaluating paleoecological problems through numerous lenses and techniques, earning her the E. Lucy Braun Award for Excellence in Ecology in 2008, followed by the Ecological Society of America Cooper Award in 2010.

Gill received her PhD in 2012, with a dissertation that examined the impact of the extinction of giant Pleistocene animals on plant life, based on surveys of pollen deposits in lake sediments. “For me, the megafauna were this really big hook,” she said, “but for some reason—I still don’t know exactly why—the question of why the animals went extinct was never very interesting to me. It’s a story where all the really cool characters die, and you’re like, what happens next? That was always the more interesting question for me.”

Her curiosity about the recent loss (geologically speaking) of such influential creatures led Gill to Brown University, as a Voss Postdoctoral Fellow, then back to her old stomping grounds near Acadia, for a joint appointment at UMaine’s Climate Change Institute and Biology and Ecology Department.

She now heads the Biodiversity & Environments Across Space and Time (BEAST) laboratory, where she works with students to apply outside-the-box thinking to environmental problems. As a megafan of megafauna, in part due to their stabilizing influence over ecosystems, Gill is interested in how ecological and climate shifts of the past can equip us to confront those in the present and future.

“We’ve been moving away from hyperspecialization into more interdisciplinary questions, and I think it’s a recognition that the global change problems we want to solve are complex and touch on many aspects of the Earth,” she told me, “so to make traction on any of these problems, you really need it to be interdisciplinary.”

“There have been really amazing scientists that have taught us a tremendous amount about our planet by focusing on one single organism, study site, or system, and studying that rigorously for their entire careers,” she continued. “We can get certain kinds of knowledge from those types of approaches, but I also think we can learn a lot from going back to some of those earlier models, where folks like Darwin would just pursue interesting questions from a range of disciplines. I think there’s a lot of power there, and we’re rediscovering it.”

Read More: The Dawn of a 'Transgenic Wilderness' Is Upon Us

Now that she’s on the other side of the advisor-student partnership, she delights in seeing labmates follow their own scientific noses to farflung field sites in Beringia, Jamaica, and the Falkland Islands, to collect ice cores, fossils, and other useful data. “I love mentoring,” she said. “Helping people find what excites them, to me, is way more fun than telling them what excites me, it turns out. I have students who have brought my research in totally new directions, places I never thought it would go, because they’re coming in with their own interests.”

Seeing her students thrive further reinforces Gill’s commitment to fostering a welcoming and diverse science sphere, and expanding scientific access to marginalized people, perspectives, and communities. She is not willing to compromise on those values—for instance, though she was one of the initial organizers of the March for Science, a protest on April 22, 2017 that mobilized an estimated one million people, Gill left the committee a month before the event “due to a toxic, dysfunctional environment and hostility to diversity and inclusion,” according to her Twitter page.

Gill was frustrated by event organizers who favored sidelining diversity concerns as a “distraction from the real work” of the March for Science, she said.

“First and foremost, I wish we could just say: ‘Having more diversity in science is the right thing to do.’ I wish that was enough, but it’s not,” she told me. “We have to bend over backwards with these arguments about how a diversity of scientists will mean a diversity of ideas. Think about how far ahead we could be if, all through the ages, we had women and people of color engaging in science because we’ve basically only had a fraction of the brainpower of humanity represented in driving these ideas forward.”

“I truly believe in those arguments,” she added, “but at the same time, those arguments make me sad because why should we have to defend the idea that science should be for everyone?”

To that point, Gill has honed a strong public voice and she has a growing audience on social media. Along with meteorologist Eric Holthaus and author Andy Revkin, she co-hosts Warm Regards, a podcast about climate change. She also frequently tweets about defending scientific conclusions in an age of troubling anti-science rhetoric, and shaping the STEM sector to be open to everyone.

“Who gets to do science, who funds science, who the science is for—all of those things influence the science itself,” Gill said. “Pretending that’s not true does a disservice to science just as much as to society.”

Humans of the Year is a series about the people building a better future for everyone. Follow along here.