By John Stumbos, UC Davis
Susan Harrison, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors a scientist can receive. As an ecologist, Harrison studies the processes that shape and maintain plant species diversity at the landscape scale.
“Susan’s work has spanned several important fields in ecology and has been distinguished by the breadth and care of her empirical studies, as well as their tight tie to ecological theory,” said Alan Hastings, who, like Harrison, is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy and a member of the NAS.
Harrison is a UC Davis alumna, having received a bachelor’s in zoology in 1983 and a master’s in ecology in 1986. She earned her doctorate in biology at Stanford before returning to Davis as a faculty member in 1991.
Wildflowers are suffering
Much of Harrison’s recent work has focused on how climatic drying is affecting the biological diversity of California grassland communities. In a 15-year study at the NRS's McLaughlin Natural Reserve, located between Lake Berryessa and Clear Lake, she noted how a loss of plant species richness, especially of native wildflowers, is tied to drier winters such as those experienced during drought. She reported her work in a paper titled “Climate-Driven Diversity Loss in a Grassland Community,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015.
Harrison has also studied plant diversity at Bodega Marine Reserve and other UC Natural Reserve System sites. “The Natural Reserve System is so important to the campus community for building environmental scientists,” she said. “It’s really important to study, record and understand what’s going on in California’s ecosystems. And it’s great that UC Davis is so devoted to this type of work and supports its scientists with the resources needed for study.”
Serpentinite plant communities
Harrison also has conducted field research on the native plant species found on serpentine soils in the Coast Ranges to better understand the vulnerability of this unique part of California’s biodiversity to climate change. The chemical makeup of serpentine soils makes them challenging for most plants to colonize. Harrison's early research focused on spatial ecology theory in natural ecosystems.
“Through Susan’s body of work, she has been able to greatly advance our understanding of how ecological communities are shaped by species interactions, the physical environment and climate,” Hastings said.