Saving space for research

Saving space for research
Susan P. Harrison was inducted in the National Academies of Science in 2018. Image: UCDavis

By José Vadi, UC Davis

By definition, the middle of nowhere is hard to find, but Susan P. Harrison defines it as the “triple junction of Napa, Lake and Yolo counties” and the center of a wealth of research possibilities. 

“If you drew a line from the northern tip of Lake Berryessa to the southern tip of Clear Lake, it’d be right in the center of that line,” Harrison said, describing the UC Natural Reserve System’s McLaughlin Natural Reserve, a research site “very rich in natural diversity.”

Harrison is a professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Science & Policy. In a 15-year study at the reserve, Harrison analyzed how a loss of plant species richness, particularly of native wildflowers, is tied to drier winters such as those experienced during drought. She reported on 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, before being inducted into the academy in 2018

“There’s interesting soil variation, which gives rise to lots of plant community variation,” Harrison explained, referring to McLaughlin as “this incredible place for all kinds of ecological research.”

Harrison grew up in Sonoma County with five siblings and a nature-enthusiast father. But it wasn’t until her undergraduate years at UC Davis that she became “aware” of science. She received a bachelor’s in zoology before earning a master’s in ecology. After earning her doctorate in biology at Stanford, Harrison returned to UC Davis as a faculty member in 1991.

Saving space for research
Harrison during a research trip. She has been conducting research at UC Davis’ McLaughlin Natural Reserve for nearly 40 years. Image: UC Davis

Pioneering work

Harrison is most proud of supporting the development of the UC Natural Reserve System, describing the network as the product of “a grassroots movement of environmental scientists.” 

The need for the reserves began when researchers in Southern California encountered difficulties studying reptiles and plants, with many of their favorite research sites “getting developed and paved over,” according to Harrison. As a master’s student, she joined the campus advisory committee for the reserve system to help some reserves find better financial footing. 

“I started doing my research on these reserves almost 40 years ago, and I still do,” Harrison explained, noting today the nearly 40 UC reserves across California. “There’s nothing like it and it’s an amazing resource. Not only is there this beautiful piece of land that protects some special part of the natural heritage, but over time it develops this kind of knowledge base.”

The future of Harrison’s work focuses on the effects of climate change and its impacts across the state, including “potentially a lot of change in forests” due to increased temperature, lack of water and fires. 

For Harrison, it “never made all that much sense to go study someplace a thousand miles away when there’s all this cool, incredible natural diversity right here in lovely Northern California.”

One response to “Saving space for research”

  1. Mike Dorward Avatar
    Mike Dorward

    It was very nice to catch up a bit with what you are doing at the reserves, Susan. I miss seeing and talking with you at the U-Wide meetings.
    Very best wishes.
    Mike Dorward

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