For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Warren Sconiers—an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder interested in plant-insect interactions, insect ecology, and climate change—shares his story below.
Since I was a kid, I always loved being outside watching what plants and insects were up to—especially insects. During high school, I took my first environmental science and ecology course and fell in love with it. The idea of seeing how nature came to be and how it evolved has always interested me. Furthermore, studying the complex and fundamental interactions that take place all around us which shape the world we live in was wonderful and a great passion of mine.
From there, I explored my newfound passion for ecology at University of California, Irvine with Ecology and Evolutionary Biology as my major. I worked with Katherine Suding (now at University of Colorado Boulder [CUB]) as an undergraduate researcher and lab technician after my graduation. There were a variety of projects I was a part of, including alpine phenology, fire and succession ecology, and climate change. During my time as an undergraduate, I completed my first entomology course (the study of insects) and that ignited another passion!
With this newfound interest, I completed my PhD at Texas A&M University in entomology with a research focus on agroecology and drought as a component of climate change. I researched how drought stress through climate change would impact the physiology of cotton plants, and if there were nutritional changes in those plants that affected pest species diversity in that ecosystem. It was also during this time that I developed another passion—teaching ecology. I continued with a postdoc at North Carolina State University teaching insect ecology and researching similar questions with urban entomology.
My career shifted to focus more on teaching as an Assistant Professor of Biology at University of the Ozarks. Here, 80% of my time was spent teaching (though it felt like more) and I researched sustainable pest control in horticultural systems and shifted quite a bit to include bacteriophage discovery and gene annotation as part of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute sponsored education program. After 5 years at Ozarks, my career led me to teaching at CUB.
At CUB, I continue to teach biology and have delved into educational research. During the summers, I work with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, studying how climate change in alpine plant systems—with manipulations that simulate climate change—affect the species diversity of arthropods. I am also looking at the functional ecology of these species, such as whether we are seeing changes in the species diversity of pollinators, herbivores, predators, etc., in these systems. I would very much like to incorporate defensive plant and nutritional chemistry but am currently having a difficult time extracting pollen and nectar from flowers that are smaller than 1–2 cm in diameter! I may have to resort to destructive sampling but am still looking into how that is possible. I would love to see if there are nutritional mechanisms that underlie the change observed in arthropod diversity.
Since being an undergrad, I have admired Katherine Suding, Marko J Spasojevic, and Loralee Larios, as well as others, in the Suding lab for their amazing work in the field of ecology—truly a group of all-stars! I want to also shout out Sammy Ramsey here at CUB! He was one of the first black entomologists who I started following. When I first started teaching, I would show my students his TED Talk about overcoming his fear of insects and discovering his passion for studying them. He helped me see that there were others like me who were bugging out for ecology!