Joan Walker

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Joan Walker mesuring Tephrosia virginiana in an experimental garden

Joan measures Tephrosia virginiana (goat’s rue) in the experimental garden located at the Clemson University Sand Hills Research and Education Center. | Photo by Lucy Rummler, US Forest Service.

Meet Joan Walker, a research ecologist, more specifically, a plant ecologist with the Southern Research Station’s Restoring Longleaf Pine Ecosystems unit in Clemson, S.C. Walker was the first botanist on the National Forests in Florida and for the Southern Region before moving to the Southern Research Station. Her research is helping resource managers with longleaf pine restoration projects. For over a decade, Walker and others have worked with federal, state and diverse working groups to restore declining longleaf pine forests in Southeast Coastal Plain and Sandhill ecosystems. Walker has done extensive research on the plants in the understory of longleaf pine, which is an important aspect to the longleaf pine ecosystem. Her love of gardening nurtured by her grandfather started her down the path to becoming a plant ecologist.

Joan teaches a Clemson University Forestry class

Joan teaches a Clemson University Forestry class about the diversity of the longleaf pine ecosystem and leads a discussion about management options. | Photo by Ralph Costa.

When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?

My journey to the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) began when I was a faculty member for Southeastern Louisiana University. There I met my husband-to-be, a wildlife biologist, on the Kisatchie National Forest (NF). Eventually, we began exploring career options that would make it possible for us to live in the same place. We learned about an opportunity with the National Forests in Florida. This was a place rich in rare plant resources and very engaged with the conservation community. So, we accepted positions and moved to Tallahassee. I became the first botanist on a NF in The Southern Region of the Forest Service (Region). I worked with field personnel, hired the first botanical technicians, and was part of the planning team.

At the end of three years, I accepted a position as the ecologist for the region in Atlanta. I was the first ecologist at this level. Once onboard, I again found myself in a program building position, learning to work with regional issues, and assisting the botanical staff on forests and districts across the south.

In 1992, The Threatened, Endangered and Sensitive Species (T&E) Research Work Unit (RWU) in Clemson, S.C. with the SRS was looking for a research botanist, or ecologist. I was excited about the chance to work on endangered plants, and develop ways to conserve them on managed lands. I missed the challenges of solving botanical puzzles. Coming to SRS after working for the region served me well. My management experience fueled my growing interest and commitment to use “inspired” research, and my contacts with managers made it possible for me to keep connected to emerging plant research needs.

Of course, a career continues to evolve. After a reorganization, I am now in the Restoring and Managing Longleaf Pine Ecosystems RWU. I support the restoration and management mission with a variety of field and experimental garden projects. Recently, I investigated the benefits of non-traditional approaches to restoring the longleaf pine canopy. I am currently assessing the importance of seed sources of herbaceous species needed for longleaf pine ecosystem restoration. I incorporate rare plant management studies as the opportunities present themselves.

What led you to pursue this field of study?

I like plants. Maybe introverts find cover in plants! They don’t make strong demands for conversation at the end of a long day. I was involved in gardening as a kid. My grandfather showed me the first real botanical thing I remember. He showed me how remains of the apple blossom were still visible in the center of the apple. I was fascinated and I cut open a lot of fruit that summer. My interest was solidified with two undergraduate courses: general botany and general ecology. I accepted my diploma from Lebanon Valley College, Annville, Pa., and started working at Hershey Park, moving shortly to the Hershey Medical Center. After a year of small animal surgery, and assaying for metabolites from the brains of experimental animals, I knew it was time to get back to plants.

I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C. where I studied some of the most interesting plant communities in the world! I continue to work in those longleaf pine savannas to this day. I also received my Ph.D. in Biology from UNC.

My first consideration of research as a career coincided with working in Dr. Jeanne Argot’s research lab for a summer at Lebanon Valley College. I conducted an independent study project that involved tissue culture that had nothing to do with plants or ecology. I experienced the satisfaction of solving problems and developing and answering questions. Dr. Argot was the first woman scientist I got to know. I saw her work, and I saw her stick up for herself in a predominantly male faculty staff.

What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?

Like so many of my colleagues, there is no typical day. Unfortunately, I spend less and less time in the field and more in the office. I treasure the field time. I mostly work in longleaf pine systems. There are no natural longleaf pines within 120 miles of my office, so field work starts and ends with travel.

In my office at Clemson University, where I also serve as an adjunct professor, there are the predictable administrative responsibilities, supervision and answering the phone. And, there are the less regular, but often more interesting challenges of advising graduate students and figuring out what is killing our plants in the greenhouse.

Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?

One of my most memorable experiences involved traveling to Korea where I presented research results to the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations. This trip exposed me directly to colleagues in other parts of the world, and provided me an extraordinary education in local culture. I was there during the celebration that honored the Buddha’s birthday, and I was hosted for an evening in Seoul by a local university professor and his students. I enjoyed tea made from pine needles!

Rare plant habitat on the Apalachicola National Forest

Rare plant habitat on the Apalachicola National Forest. (One of my favorite places in the whole world!) Joan continues to work with National Forest colleagues to develop conservation strategies for threatened and endangered species. | Photograph by Joan Walker, US Forest Service.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I especially like introducing all kinds of people to the intricacies of the herbaceous community associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem. It is a system I have come to know and love over my career. It takes an experienced guide to help first-time visitors to learn the secrets hidden in plain sight. I like to facilitate discovery for students, and especially private landowners who manage and want to restore their part of the natural world.

To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?

It is interesting that I find myself reluctant to focus on this facet of my career. Perhaps because women in my generation of scientists were not encouraged to raise these issues. Although women are under-represented today, the gender balance was even more skewed 30 years ago. I suppose the most memorable challenges relate to conducting fieldwork alone. Nothing like a single woman in the pine woods of southeastern North Carolina, or north Florida to bring out the crazies. Enough said on that.

I may be unique among SRS scientists in that I spent most of my FS research career in projects with women project leaders. For much of that time women were scarce in SRS leadership positions, and I am not sure they were mentored for success. Particularly for success as members of the management and leadership teams. Visible and effective project leaders can generate opportunities for their scientists, and in this way the challenges to women scientists can be propagated through the ranks.

What women have inspired you?

My husband says I think too much. That’s probably true. Case in point: My response on reading this questions was “Inspired me to do what? To be a scientist? To never give up? To be a good person? To be brave? To speak truth from the heart? All of the above? What do you really want to know?” So, I asked myself: Who are the women that inspire me to say, “I want to be her when I grow up.” They come from different places. My mom showed great kindness, generosity, and compassion to all; I want to be her when I grow up. I am in awe of women who remain cheerful and positive in the face of some pretty bad stuff. I have huge respect for women who speak their truth with respect, and those who have the courage to try new things and fail. I have met these women among my family, friends, and colleagues.

What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?

You do not have to know everything. There are many collaborative and supportive colleagues who are rooting for your success! Find them and work with them.

Longleaf pine stand

Longleaf pine successfully established under a loblolly pine canopy. Joan and her colleagues have been investigating silvicultural options for restoring longleaf pine dominance to sites that are currently forested with other southern pines without clearcutting. | Photo by Ralph Costa.