Catherine Pringle, distinguished research professor in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology, has been interested in the environment and freshwater ecosystems since she was a kid growing up in Michigan.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
At the University of Michigan, I earned my bachelor’s degree in botany, master’s degree in natural resources and Ph.D. in aquatic ecology. I am a full professor in the Odum School of Ecology and chair of its Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development (CESD)master’s program, which was was one of the first graduate conservation programs in the country when it began in 1994. More recently, I have been involved in developing and teaching in UGA’s new Integrative Conservation (ICON) Ph.D. program, which involves four academic units on campus (ecology, anthropology, forest resources and geography).
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I joined UGA’s Odum School of Ecology (formerly the Institute of Ecology) in 1993, after postdoctoral positions through the University of California at Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and Cornell University. The University of Georgia was one of the first institutions in the country to actively recruit faculty in the area of conservation ecology. My position was created as part of ecology’s (then new) Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development graduate program. Another factor that brought me here was that UGA created a tenure-track position for my botanist husband, Jim Affolter, who is now a full professor in UGA’s horticulture department and director of research at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I greatly enjoy teaching “Conservation Biology”— from a freshwater ecosystem perspective. Conservation is a rapidly changing field with many challenges. As Aldo Leopold put it, “conservation is a bird that flies faster than the shot we aim at it.” Yesterday’s conservation success stories have often evolved into much more complicated challenges. As stewards of the environment, we have to be constantly vigilant for the unintended consequences of our actions. In my teaching I strive to frame contemporary environmental issues in a historical context, with the goal of moving toward a positive future. Teaching from this perspective helps me keep a more balanced perspective—given the magnitude of environmental problems that we face today.
What interests you about your field?
I am fascinated by rivers and streams, the flowing waters that drain the Earth’s surface, and the aquatic organisms adapted to these dynamic environments. An over-arching challenge of my research is to link research on stream ecosystems with conservation—through resource management, environmental outreach or synthesis activities. We are losing the ecosystem services provided by freshwater ecosystems at an alarming rate, and a major research theme of my lab is how stream ecosystems are altered by different types of disturbance, ranging from dams to disease to changes in land-use and climate. One of the intriguing things about research is that it takes you in unforeseen directions. For example, while our long-term project in lowland streams of Costa Rica initially focused on food webs and phosphorus dynamics, emergent patterns in our 25-year dataset on solute chemistry led us to study the ecological consequences of climate-driven acidification.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
A highlight of my career has been conducting field research in streams with my graduate students and watching their creativity unfold as they develop dissertation and master’s research projects. My main research sites are in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, where I have been involved in long-term collaborative research projects since the 1980s. Since coming to UGA, my lab also has been involved in stream ecology research in Panama and Trinidad. Our studies have also taken us to more remote locations such as eastern Madagascar and the island of Kosrae in Micronesia. It has been fascinating to experience a diversity of the Earth’s freshwater ecosystems first-hand, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to study them with my graduate students. Other highlights of my career include being elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science(AAAS), serving as past-president of the Society for Freshwater Science, and receiving the Kilham Award from the International Society of Limnology and Oceanography.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I view teaching and research as an iterative, back-and-forth process. I love to use case studies to explain ecological concepts. Teaching provides the opportunity to stay updated on what is happening in the field and to identify gaps in the published literature often providing an impetus to address these gaps through synthesis papers (e.g., the neglected dimension of hydrologic connectivity in conservation biology).
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
Knowledge and excitement in the natural world, appreciation of the complexity of environmental issues, and ways to approach conservation challenges.
Describe your ideal student.
An individual with a passion for ecology and the environment, a strong work ethic, a commitment to making a significant scientific contribution … and motivated by pursuing work that they enjoy!
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is …
… visiting the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. The garden, although not on central campus, is a unit within UGA with nature trails, beautiful landscapes and ornamental gardens. It is a lovely place to hike with the family—through the forest and along streams where you can see beaver dams, salamander larvae, deer and the occasional fox. As an aquatic ecologist and conservation biologist, I am interested in the habitat restoration projects taking place at the botanical garden (e.g., the Chinese privet that has dominated the floodplain forest for decades is slowly but surely being replaced by native plant species).
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
I am passionate about gardening and planting for pollinators and birds in my backyard. I am happiest with my hands in the soil and haven’t been able to resist digging and planting wherever I have lived, from small patches of soil next to rental apartments in Michigan, California and New York to our yard here in Georgia, where I have lived for more than 20 years. For me, designing and creating a garden are the most rewarding activities: when our backyard shade garden was crushed by a giant tree-fall two years ago, the silver lining was the opportunity to plant a new garden full of sun-loving plants.
Favorite book (and why)?
I love reading both fiction and nonfiction. My favorite nonfiction book is “Our Stolen Future” by Theo Colburn and colleagues. It is a very powerful and cautionary scientific detective story about the chronic effects of persistent organic pollutants (which mimic our hormones) on both humans and wildlife. It is a wonderful example of how science can be effectively communicated in a compelling and understandable way. One of my many favorites in fiction is a series that my young daughter insisted that I read: the “Hunger Games” trilogy—in many ways a metaphor for conflict in the modern world.
Proudest moment at UGA?
By far, the most rewarding thing for me has been following the productive and interesting careers of graduate students that I have advised over the past 22 years. Some alumni have gone on to become professors in academia, with others working for state and federal agencies (National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency) and nongovernmental organizations (Nature Conservancy). While planning a symposium to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the master’s degree program in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development, it has been fascinating to look at the achievements and career trajectories of the many alumni of this program. More than 115 students completed their master’s degrees in the CESD program, the vast majority going on to pursue successful careers related to conservation and sustainability—many creating new job niches in this rapidly growing field.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I met my husband, Jim Affolter, when we were both graduate students at the University of Michigan. We have a 14-year-old daughter, Pamela, who is a dancer, plays the viola, and loves dogs, cats and good cooking! Our favorite family place to relax is the lake and dune area of northern Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula—one of the most beautiful places in the world. Finally, I have a long-time love of cats and am particularly partial to orange tiger males!