Skip to main content

UW-Madison ecologist receives MacArthur Award

August 5, 2008 By Jill Sakai

University of Wisconsin–Madison zoology professor Monica Turner was lauded Aug. 4 for work that was once criticized as “pseudoscience.”

Turner’s research on how large-scale environmental changes affect ecological processes has helped establish a new discipline, known as landscape ecology. In recognition of her tremendous contributions to the field, she received the 2008 Robert H. MacArthur Award from the Ecological Society of America in Milwaukee on Aug. 4 at the society’s annual meeting.

Photo of Turner at Yellowstone National Park

Monica Turner began her twenty-year study of Yellowstone National Park when the park’s 1988 fire left complex patterns of damage — and a rare chance to explore the ecological impact over time.

Read a feature story about Turner’s Yellowstone research that was published in the summer 2008 issue of On Wisconsin, the university’s alumni magazine.

The award, presented every two years, honors a mid-career ecologist who has made meritorious contributions to ecology and demonstrates outstanding potential for future research. Turner will also be invited to deliver an address at the 2009 meeting, to be held in Albuquerque.

Now the Eugene P. Odum Professor of Ecology, Turner faced an uphill battle early in her career. Her research questions — many of which relied on natural events that could not be repeated — did not fit the standard mold of scientific experiments.

“I had reviews back in those times from manuscripts or proposals with reviewers saying, ‘This isn’t science, this is pseudoscience because it can’t be replicated,'” she recalls. In response, she developed new methods that apply rigorous scientific standards to study what she calls “natural experiments.”

Her efforts paid off. Now recognized as one of the founders of landscape ecology, she co-authored in 2001 what remains a definitive textbook on the subject. In 2004, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

She may be best known for her extensive body of work on forest fires in Yellowstone National Park, showing how a major ecological disturbance can shape an ecosystem over space and time. She also has active research programs examining how historical land-use patterns have influenced southern Appalachian forests and studying ecosystems at the interface between land and water in Wisconsin’s Northern Highlands Lake District.

No matter where she is working, though, her collaborators praise her efficiency, thoughtfulness and the breadth of her scientific vision.

“The thing that I appreciate about working with her is her ability to be interdisciplinary, bring a lot of different ideas together and to put together teams that work well together that are able to address the questions in ways that play to everybody’s strengths,” says UW–Madison forest and wildlife ecology professor Phil Townsend.

“She covers all fronts. She’s a nice person to be around, she’s cheerful, she’s friendly,” says Dan Kashian, a former graduate student of Turner’s who is now an assistant professor at Wayne State University. “And on top of it all, she’s done this while having two kids.”

In addition to her research, Turner is an active member of the ecology community at UW–Madison and an accomplished mentor and teacher.

“The thing about Monica is that she’s very good at knowing what it takes to succeed,” Kashian says. “As an adviser, she had a lot of advice on what it takes to do well, and I haven’t come across a situation yet where that advice was incorrect.”