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Clarice Esch Interview
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Clarice Esch

Describe the project you’ll be conducting with your GWIS Fellowship funds. What do you hope to discover through this research, and how will the GWIS Fellowship help make this research happen?

With the GWIS Fellowship, I will be studying the ‘ghosts of trees past’ or legacies of plant-soil feedbacks (PSFs).  The plant-soil feedbacks I focus on are interactions mediated by soil biota between forest trees and seedlings growing nearby.  The goal of my work is to discern the lasting effects of these PSFs following tree death. These legacies could be influenced by the type of mycorrhizal fungi with which a tree species associates.  To better understand the role of mycorrhizal type and PSF legacies, I will collect soil around stumps and live trees of six species that associate with the two dominant types of tree-associating mycorrhizae from a chronosequence of harvests.  Then I will grow seedlings of my selected tree species in these soils and measure their growth and survival responses.

Through this research I hope to gain a better understanding of the role of PSFs and their legacies in forest understory dynamics.  The results may have also implications for how forests are managed and what species can be expected to regenerate well. The GWIS funds allow me to conduct the field, greenhouse, and lab work associated with this study by providing funds for supplies, transit, and lab analyses.  


What’s the coolest thing about your research and/or favorite part of your job?

For me it’s the little things you stumble across in the field, that critter you’ve never seen before or plant you haven’t yet seen bloom.  I also love the people I get to work with from professors and post-docs to fellow grad students and undergrad field assistants. The experiences we share tend to be unforgettable.  There is always a great sense of camaraderie and sharing in the thrill of discovery whether you’ve just found that one specimen you’ve been dying to see, made a breakthrough in the lab, or finally got that analysis running.



How did you end up doing what you’re doing? What was your path to becoming a scientist?

It all started with a passion for plants.  In high school I volunteered at a raptor rehabilitation center and after a year or so there I took up the care and revitalization of the greenhouse at the center.  Selecting and nurturing plants while raising funds for the center through their sale was immensely rewarding. As an undergrad, I knew that I wanted to keep working in a greenhouse and got in touch with a horticulture professor who managed one of the campus greenhouses.  I expected to be vying for a role watering plants, but then he proposed that I put my cultivation skills to use with a research project. This blossomed into five years of research and a string of projects, because as I learned, “Good research always leads to more questions.”  I think that this is what I love most about research. No matter what your findings are, you’re always pushing the envelope and learning something new. If the results aren’t as expected, that is still interesting and gives you something to ponder.


Now I’m enjoying my grad studies in forest ecology where I’m still a frequent resident of the greenhouse and also roam the forests.  It feels as though it has been a rather winding, but rich path. I am still expanding my breadth as a researcher. In the past couple years I have started into some pathology work and gained some amazing skills while also seeing my research in a new light.


What do you like to do when you aren’t working on your science?

When I’m not working on my science, I like getting out to forests or other ecosystems that I haven’t been to before.  Reading and cooking are some of my favorite ways to unwind, and I love getting together with friends from the lab and across campus for a good meal.  I also enjoy walking back and forth to campus -- it gives me the time I need to organize my thoughts and guarantees that I don’t spend all winter tucked away in the greenhouse or at my desk.



Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for girls and young women who wish to pursue a career in science?

The thrill of discovering something new is real.  Knowing that your results are pushing forward the frontier of what we understand about the world around us is incredibly rewarding.  Being a scientist is one of the few jobs where you get to be constantly on the edge of what we know and ask questions that you find exciting.  

Determination, both in terms of research and career-wise, is necessary.  With research, you learn when to doggedly follow the plan you set out, when to revise your methods, and when to take a fresh look and maybe rewrite the whole plan.  With your career, don’t let anyone define your limitations.

Being part of a community is key.  Find a community of mentors and peers that are supportive and cultivate that kind of a community wherever you go.  Science doesn’t happen alone.

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