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Pollen cores to pushing boundaries: who is Margaret B. Davis?


By Katherine Hébert

Conferences are simultaneously the worst and best thing about graduate school. They’re the worst if you get nervous about presenting your work in front of researchers you cite all the time, and have placed on a very fancy, divinely-lit academic podium in your brain (this is the case for most graduate students I know). Conferences are also the best, because you can stumble upon some super inspiring things in the whirlwind of talks and networking that you might never have encountered elsewhere.

Last January, I had the opportunity to present a poster at the International Biogeography Society (IBS) Biennial Meeting in Tucson, Arizona. At the end of the conference, the IBS Board awarded the Alfred Russel Wallace Award to Margaret B. Davis, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, for a “long and distinguished career of outstanding contributions to biogeography”. I learned that she has been publishing ecological research since the late 1950s, that she pushed paleoecology to the forefront of ecology and biogeography, and that she was one of the first prominent female ecologists. Despite the enormous list of her contributions to ecology delivered at the award ceremony, I had somehow never heard her name. I decided to correct that.

Margaret Davis is primarily known for using pollen cores to reconstruct past forest communities, in order to understand how ecological communities can respond to changing environments. She spent most of her career thinking about how to distinguish human-related impacts on ecological communities from naturally occurring changes, in order to better understand how we are affecting our ecosystems. One of the most foundational ideas we inherited from Davis’ work is that species shift their ranges and adapt in response to climate change, resulting in transient communities. While this idea is now at the core (pun intended!) of many ecological research programs, it was not common knowledge until her work was more widely acknowledged in the 1980s.


Colorized microscope images reveal the stunning diversity of pollen that Dr. Davis studies.

Davis was also known for questioning scientific approaches to common questions, in order to accurately interpret observations about the natural world. In 1963, she proposed a correction for major flaws in a widespread pollen analysis method that had led to interpretation errors. Rigorously challenging the validity of a standard technique, as one of very few female paleoecologists at the time, was a monumental contribution to the field. Davis’ decision to stand her ground, and to continue think critically about how to use her infuence in order to improve the scientific method was important, and set a high standard in ecological research that we should continue to aim for today.

Davis’ scientific integrity earned her several opportunities to lead the field of ecology towards being both more inclusive, and more scientifically robust. The Wallace Award she received at the IBS meeting is one of many, which attests to her enormously valuable influence on the quality of ecological research, as well as the reduction of gender bias in ecology.

My ignorance of Margaret Davis’ career was sadly not very surprising to me. Ecology, like most disciplines, is riddled with biases that obscure certain researchers and their valuable work. Last year, Courchamp and Bradshaw’s list of the “100 papers every ecologist should read” (2017) attempted to assemble foundational ecological research. However, a major flaw was soon pointed out by Julia K. Baum & Tara G. Martin: only 2 of the 100 papers were authored by women, and only 1 paper was written by a non-white man. Some foundational papers were doubtless unconsciously left out, though they likely deserved to be featured in the list. Watching 86 year old Margaret Davis receive her award in front of a standing ovation reminded me to dig deeper in the hopes of celebrating the pioneers who aren’t always recognized on such lists, but who have nonetheless unquestionably paved the way towards better science.

Katherine Hébert completed her M. Sc. in Biology at Concordia University under the co-supervision of Jean-Philippe Lessard and Virginie Millien (McGill University) in 2017, where her research focused on how space and environmental conditions have shaped island mammal communities in several regions around the world. She plans to continue thinking about how biodiversity is built and maintained over large spatial scales in her upcoming PhD research.

#tbt We loved this post by @hebert_kat bringing the story of pollen researcher Margaret B Davis to life! #womeninSTEM

Post date: August 15, 2018


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