From being a self-described “outdoorsy kid” to becoming a full-time researcher of forest biodiversity, Professor Nathan Swenson has dedicated his career to studying trees.
His transformative experience began as an undergraduate at St. Olaf College, when he took a month-long field course on desert ecology. “What was wonderful about that course was the field experience where we were asked as undergrads to come up with our own research questions and try and gather some rudimentary data to answer them,” the biologist said. “That really led me to dive all in on ecology.”
From there, he was further captivated by his study abroad experience in India and Malaysia: “Being a kid from Minnesota, and just seeing the incredible biodiversity of a rainforest for the first time, I was hooked.”
Now, his research has led him to study forests all over the world, most recently as the Gillen Director of the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC) at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. He examines how the environment impacts individual tree growth and mortality rates, and how these individual differences can subsequently affect the growth and decline of populations. Ultimately, the goal is to understand how these dynamics affect the overall biodiversity of forested ecosystems.
The research site at UNDERC allows Swenson and his team to conduct detailed observations and experiments in a natural environment. Last year, for example, they constructed mini shelters over certain trees to block them from rainfall. Simulating a drought allowed the researchers to examine the effect it would have on the individuals’ seedlings. The study relates to an intertwined research interest for Swenson: how trees will respond to aspects of climate change, such as drought. When studying what governs forest biodiversity, long-term observational studies with large data sets reveal how trees are changing in response to human-related effects.
One of his favorite parts about working at UNDERC, though, is the opportunity to train undergraduates there every summer. It reminds him of his own undergraduate field ecology experience that helped him evolve from a student curious about the environment to a passionate field ecologist. “It’s been a nice little kind of closed loop for me that I can help people have those same kinds of experiences,” he said.
More than his work at UNDERC, Swenson was drawn to Notre Dame for the potential to collaborate with talented undergraduate students and world-class faculty colleagues.
Outside of his time at work, Swenson likes to ride his bike and play soccer with his kids. In some ways, though, his work is a hobby, too. “I feel really lucky to do what I do: it almost feels like a hobby to go around and go out into the forest and ask questions,” he said.
The outdoorsy kid still lives in him: “The things I loved as a kid, I still do, and that’s great.”