Jonathan Losos’ return to St. Louis to lead the Living Earth Collaborative is welcome news.
There should not be a more unifying objective than to care for and sustain our planet and all that lives on it, particularly at a time when more than 23,000 species on the IUCN Red List are threatened with extinction.
Anytime St. Louis can add talented people motivated to find ways to better protect plants and preserve wildlife, it can only strengthen our region’s place as a leader in promoting ecology and conservation around the globe.
The University of Missouri-St. Louis’ own Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center — a long-standing partnership between UMSL, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo — has spent almost three decades working to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss.
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It does so by promoting community education, fostering scientific research and training students who have gone on to become conservation leaders in countries and regions where plant and animal populations are threatened.
Noted environmentalist Peter Raven, former president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a former member of the University of Missouri System Board of Curators, was instrumental in the formation of what was first called the International Center for Tropical Ecology with an eye on training ecology leaders.
It now counts more than 250 master’s and doctorate graduates among its alumni, and they’ve come from 38 countries.
The center’s endowment received a boost in 2007 when Whitney R. Harris, a founding member of the center’s development board, donated $1.5 million to expand the center’s mission, and it was renamed in his honor.
The endowment has continued to grow and has now reached nearly $5 million.
Harris Center students receive grants to facilitate their learning and research during their graduate studies. They are all but guaranteed crucial funding during their first field seasons, giving them the opportunity to test out ideas that can become the groundwork for scientific breakthroughs.
Some of our students’ research has even spurred immediate policy changes to improve ecology.
One student, using a natural antibody test, found that birds living on small islands in the Galapagos had weaker immune systems compared to birds on the big islands, putting them at greater risk from viruses that could be brought on by outsiders. At the suggestion of Harris Center faculty and students, the Galapagos National Park altered their tourist visitation system to limit exposure on smaller islands.
Harris Center graduates land jobs where they can continue to make an impact long after they leave St. Louis.
Alejandro Masis is now the director of Area de Conservacion Guanacaste in Costa Rica. The area is a destination for ecotourism, extending from the Pacific Ocean, over the volcanic mountain range to 2.4 percent of the world's terrestrial biodiversity.
Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji is currently serving as the minister of agriculture and forests in Bhutan, which has been called the ecological heart of the eastern Himalaya by National Geographic.
Other graduates have been making their mark at nongovernmental organizations working to protect threatened ecosystems or promote conservation.
Patricia Baiao first landed a job as Amazon Program director at Conservation International in her native Brazil after completing her doctoral degree. She’s since moved back to the United States and serves as the Hawaii program manager for Island Conservation, which works to prevent extinctions by removing invasive species from islands.
Still other graduates have entered academia, taking what they’ve learned at the Harris Center to universities throughout the United States and around the world.
Noah Whiteman is an associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Kevin Matson is an assistant professor in the department of environmental systems at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Jose Luis Rivera-Parra teaches at Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador, and researches the impact of human activities on ecosystems and how to mitigate them.
It is wonderful to see others in St. Louis devote talent and resources toward the same mission and, in the process, make St. Louis a world leader in ecological education and research.
Tom George is chancellor of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.