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Environment & Energy

Powdermill Wins Award For Its Human Diversity Approach To Biodiversity

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courtesy, Powdermill Nature Reserve
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John Wenzel believes there should be greater diversity among the ecologists working to preserve the globe’s biodiversity.

“We are not a very attractive career for a lot of minorities,” said Wenzel, director of Powdermill Nature Reserve, and that’s troubling.

“If you look at the ethnic composition of field ecologists, they’re overwhelmingly white Anglo, and the same way our studies of biology focus on diversity, most of us recognize we would probably do better as a field if we had a greater variety of people with different backgrounds and different perspectives doing the research itself.”

Wenzel says he was leading an international workshop at the Institute of Ecology in Xalapa, Mexico and was impressed with the high quality of the students.  But the head of the graduate program lamented that the students, while knowledgeable of their native tropical zone, in some ways would still be “second class” compared to Americans and Europeans because of a lack of opportunity to study in the temperate zone.

“It occurred to me we should be able to solve that; I run a field station in the temperate zone and he has all of these high quality students from the tropics.”

After some planning, the first of its kind program was created to bring the ecology students to the Pittsburgh area to expand their learning.

Now in its fifth year, the fellowship program has brought to Pittsburgh 63 of the best students from several Latin American nations, and they have more applicants than they can accept.

Powdermill, the environmental research center of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, recently received the Human Diversity Award from the Organization of Biological Field Stations.

According to Wenzel, the students come to Pittsburgh for two weeks in late April and early May.  “The tropical environment isn’t stable all year; it has seasonality.  But they don’t have anything like a north temperate spring, the explosion is really stunning.”

He says this program is important because to some extent the health of the global ecosystem is more in the hands of the developing nations rather than the industrialized world.

“Most of the biodiversity is in the developing nations.  So, if you really want to try to save the planet, the best thing you can do is to make sure the scholars and the scientists in those developing nations are as best trained as they possibly can be and they share our general philosophies,” Wenzel says.