Yale University, PhD Candidate, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
My dream career - learning and teaching about Botany, from seeds to plants and trees to forests
On a slightly drizzly yet sunny day my father was using a hoe and digging the ground to make a bed to grow chilies. I was four or five and watching his every move. I remember asking him why he was doing it in the rain and he replied that when the soil is moist it is easy to work and that the tiny plants won’t get dehydrated and die easily if you plant them after rain. This is my first memory of being interested in how plants grow. Later when I was about eleven, riots in the capital of Sri Lanka forced my family to leave the city and build a house on a plot of ground that had once been a cinnamon plantation. My mother taught me how to mix hay and cow dung into the impoverished soil and start our home garden. Fascinated by the surrounding paddy fields, rubber gardens and scrubby forests my brothers and I spent as much time as we could outdoors.
In high school, before going on a field trip with my Botany teacher to the Sinharaja rain forest in Sri Lanka, we watched a movie about the research done there. I was mesmerized as a world I have never been to or seen before unfolded in front of me. Professor Savithri Gunatilleke was climbing a ladder to investigate the pollination biology of the Dipetrocarpaceae family. After the field trip to the forest I knew that my love of plants was going to be woven forever into the fabric of my character. Following high school, while waiting for the university to clear up the back log of students from the long shut down due to civil unrest, my parents, both doctors, decided to send me to be trained as an accountant. At the accountancy firm, I did my work efficiently, diligently and learned to write budgets, make balance sheets and audit reports but in my heart I was climbing up the ladder behind Professor Gunatilleke, wondering about what kind of fascinating things I was missing.
After two years of waiting I entered the University of Colombo to study science. Being an accountant will have to be for another life. My father was not happy but my mother encouraged me to peruse what was interesting to me. My undergraduate training at Colombo gave me a broad exposure to the basic sciences. However, I craved for a chance to do research as well as to read about it. I managed to come close to failing one of the chemistry units but was among the only three students in a class over one hundred who had an overall A grade in all the subjects for Botany, which gave me entrance, through a highly selective process, to the special degree tract in Botany. In the third year, when I got the opportunity to conduct my undergraduate thesis research on the floristic diversity along an altitudinal gradient in the Delawala Proposed Reserve, despite the concerns of my family and friends about being in the “jungle”, a dark and alien place to them, I jumped at the opportunity. Soon, I was climbing the hills of this small and previously little studied rainforest tract in the wet zone of Sri Lanka with camping gear and collection bags for making herbarium specimens.
Looking beyond the perimeter of the reserve I realized the incompatibility of the conservation goals of the State and the land use patterns of the people. Encroachment took place from the periphery of the reserve, and over 25% of the land area of the reserve was in a state of secondary forest or arrested succession. With the training I got from Dr. Indrani Perera, I was able identify and prepare a species list and herbarium specimens for over 400 species of plants from mosses to towering trees. The highlight of the findings was rediscovering Medinilla maculata Gardn., an epiphytic member of the family Melastomataceae, which was last found in the wild by Thwaites in 1874.
In the mean time, I volunteered to work as a field taxonomist for the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka and assisted in the plant identification of the projects titled “Ecological parameters of the Spot-winged Thrush”, the “Cambridge-FOGSL Expedition to Delwala, Wellankana and Kudumiriya, Sri Lanka”, the doctoral thesis project of Renuka Wijesekera titled “Habitat type delineation of the Rakwana-Kalawana mountain region forests”, and the annual Sinharaja field visits.
The forest changed my life further. During one of the visits to the Delwala forest, I found my future husband Eben Goodale who came to Sri Lanka as a Fulbright scholar to study the mixed species bird flocks.
While the science interested me, working with people gave me the energy and hope for working towards issues that I was finding hard to accept. During my four years of undergraduate studies I took part in preparing a group exhibit on the pollution of the Beira Lake to educate the general public that came to visit the annual Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of science Exhibition in Colombo. I was also instrumental in formulating the “Management Skills for Science Graduates” program to improve communication and management skills of science graduates. I got together with a group of friends to formulate the solid waste recycling program, and actively participated in educating farmers, housewives, businessmen and policy makers on recycling. Following graduation, I worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Colombo and continued my research at Delwala. The more diverse my experience in the world of science the more I embraced the dynamic forest and the more captivated I was with the mysteries of plant life.
The Delwala experience convinced me that a strong empirical and theoretical knowledge of forest ecology would be the key to restoring degraded land, and growing the forest products to meet the market demand. I was delighted to enter the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies’ Masters in Forest Science Program. At Yale, I acquired a tool set to augment my research skills and knowledge of relevant theoretical concepts. Studies at Yale have offered me more than knowledge. It has given me the freedom to satisfy my intellect, in the midst of challenging and inspiring classmates and teachers.
The summer of 2000 took me to the Sinharaja rain forest and the surrounding villages in Sri Lanka. I worked with the pioneer species of the rain forest, studying their growth and allometric characteristics in relation to gap size, site conditions, and surrounding competition. I was interested in the pioneers as a potential resource for restoration of degraded land. I found evidence that pioneers performed differently under different sets of conditions – Wendlandia bicuspidata dominated periodically burned eroded slopes while Dillenia triquetra ascended the wetland openings. I was fascinated to discover that the neighboring villagers had a sophisticated understanding of the pioneer forest resource, and considered them to be valuable for fuel wood, house construction timber, and many other uses. At the same time I collaborated with Kristen Olson on her Masters Thesis project on the use of medicinal plants in four communities situated at varying distances from the forest and market. We found that the medicinal economy of people living close to the forest was much more complex and included bartering, subsistence home gardening, and collecting directly from the forest. In contrast, people who lived near the market in the nearest large town relied mostly on pharmaceuticals products from the hospitals and pharmacies.
At Yale as a member of the Yale chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters and the Masters student representative to the Tropical Resources Institute, I continued to gain a broader understanding of issues related to the conservation and management of tropical forests. At the same time, I got to know about plant life in other ecosystems. For some one who saw snow for the first time at Yale the field trip to Alaska with the Alpine and Boreal Ecology class offered by Professor Berlyn was an unforgettable experience!
I also got to know more about the flora and forests of New England when we prepared the management plan for the Lapham Wildlife Refuge of the Greenwich Land Trust as part of the Management Plans for Protected Areas class.
The Sri Lankan rain forest experience and my studies at Yale convinced me of the need for environmental policy and management to be guided by sound scientific investigation. I applied for further graduate studies and was selected to conduct a Ph.D. study program at Yale University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. For my dissertation research, I have investigated the ecophysiology of six native-pioneer tree species, and their restoration potential.
I am in the process of communicating my findings to develop a restoration protocol, where pioneers are used as a “nurse” to establish late successional canopy tree species. I believe that a reforestation protocol that simulates natural succession is more effective in achieving restoration goals, compared to reforestation using non-native timber species.
For both my Masters and Ph.D. thesis work I was fortunate to have the opportunity of the advice of Drs. Ashton and Berlyn. The outstanding expertise of Dr. Ashton on forest regeneration and the silvics of the Sri Lankan wet zone forests and the exceptional knowledge of the plant world of Dr. Berlyn were invaluable and unmatchable in helping me conduct the thesis research. Dr. Gregoire helped me to come to terms with the numbers and taught me all I know about statistics. Dr. Sinhakumara at the University of Sri Jayawardanapura, Dr. K. U. Tennakoon and Professors Nimal and Sathri Gunatilleke at the Peradeniya University supported and advised me to overcome the many and variable obstacles in Sri Lanka.
At Yale too, I have had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for several classes including, Principles in Applied Ecology: the Practice of Silviculture and Management Plans for Protected Areas taught by Dr. Ashton and Seminar in Alpine, Arctic and Boreal Ecology and Research Methods in Anatomy and Physiology of Trees taught by Professor Berlyn. I especially enjoyed teaching the laboratory sessions on instruments that are used to assess plant function such as the Li-Cor 6400 and working with students on their research projects.
Further, as the co-manager of the Greeley Memorial Laboratory green house and the Assistant Editor for the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, Prof. Berlyn has guided me to apply the theories learned in class room setting to real life situations. He also gave me the freedom to gain another type of teaching experience through developing training sessions for the work study student assistants for the Journal and Green House work. In Sri Lanka, over the years I have taken part in organizing, coordinating and conducting various teaching programs and workshops for university students, forest department guides, wildlife department rangers and people from the periphery of the forests.
While in New Haven I mentored a student from the Wilbur Cross high school and the fourth grade class of the W. Hooker School both in New Haven, CT. I have also taken the time to attend the courses on teaching at the Yale Graduate Teaching Center (GTC) such as Fundamentals of Teaching and Advanced Topics in Science Teaching, Thus, I have gained extensive teaching experience in a range of environments and continue to enjoy teaching subjects related to plant science and forestry.
Upon completion of my doctorate, I would like to continue scientific investigation on the dynamics of plant life from seeds to plants and trees to forests and the effect of human interventions in these systems so that it will enrich the decision making process in the field of natural resource management. I hope to apply my research and training to educate young scholars, either in a university or non-governmental organization setting. The love of botany and the curiosity of the dynamic processes in the majestic tropical forests have taken me to new and exciting places and taught me much about the fascinating cultures and languages.
Today, I am writing this from the Bush Laboratory in Ohu, Papua New Guinea using the electricity from a Honda generator. Tonight I will learn from Lucy, the wife of Brus Isua who is hosting me and Eben, about how to cook Marita and Pitpit in the open fire. After dinner I will sit with Mark, Sakias, Kelly, Sam and Melly, five young people from the Ohu and Wanam villages who are helping Eben on his postdoctoral work on the poisonous Pituhui and the New Guina mixed species bird flocks. I will teach them about how the forest structure and dynamics relate to bird communities and learn from them about poisonous plants and speaking in Tok Pisin.
The unending encouragement of my family and love and support from Eben has helped me to continue to peruse the dream job that I am fortunate to have: learning and teaching about plant life.