Liza Comita: representing women in environmental science

Liza Comita: representing women in environmental science

It’s no secret that women are under-represented in STEM fields.  The National Science Foundation reports that women comprise just over 40% of graduate students in science and technology.  However, women with a Master’s degree or higher who are actually employed in science or engineering occupations currently comprise only 30% of workers in those fields.  For this reason alone, we are excited to welcome Dr. Liza Comita as an assistant professor of tropical forest management at F&ES.  However, although Dr. Comita is an excellent role model for women pursuing STEM fields, this is far outshined by her depth of knowledge and experience, as well as the opportunities she brings for F&ES students to pursue tropical studies while at Yale.

This spring, Dr. Comita, along with Dr. Simon Queenborough, will be co-teaching an introduction to tropical field ecology course.  This field-based class will use the two week spring break to immerse students in research in the tropics.  This spring, students will work in Panama, where Dr. Comita and her lab have worked extensively.  Next year the class will travel to Ecuador, where Dr. Queenborough’s research is based.

Next fall Dr. Comita will begin offering a course in tropical forest ecology which will focus on the biology, ecology and conservation of tropical forests.  This lecture-based class will draw from the scientific literature to stimulate group discussions on topics relevant to the study of tropical ecosystems.  Through this class, she wants to encourage students to think critically about the topics covered from their own perspective, rather than simply absorb the information handed to them.  Students here come from diverse backgrounds and have an amazing amount of experience that they can share, bringing an incredible wealth of insight and perspective to these discussions.  Dr. Comita feels that in such an environment it is essential that students benefit from one another as much as from the instructor.

Next fall Dr. Liza Comita will also hold a graduate seminar focused on topics in tropical forest ecology and conservation.  This course will focus primarily on the role of secondary growth forests.  Following the historic broad scale clearing of primary growth stands, these secondary ecosystems now make up a significant portion of forest cover in the tropics.  The class will look at the biological systems of these forests, as well as the social and economic drivers of reforestation; a hugely significant field for anyone interested in ecosystem mitigation and restoration.

There are also opportunities for students to work with Dr. Comita on their own forest ecology research.  Currently she has one master’s student working in her lab where he is doing data analysis with the team.  His work on herbivory in temperate forests compliments and supplements additional research on the impact of herbivore damage on seedling survival in Panamanian forests.  Next year Dr. Comita will expand her cohort of advisees with newly admitted MESc and MFS students.  She is excited to work with students who have a background in biology, economics, management, or other fields that lend themselves to application in tropical forest systems.  Most importantly, though, newcomers to the Comita lab must have an enthusiasm for research, field biology and hands-on experience.  She stresses that tropical field work is rarely as glamorous as it first seems, and she wants students who are ready for the challenge.

Dr. Comita recognizes and does not take lightly her position as a role model for female students.  At a school whose student body is 60% female, she is one of only 12 females on a faculty of 47.  As a female scientist with a family, she is familiar with the challenges faced by women who attempt to achieve work-life balance while raising children and pursuing field research abroad.  She is eager to act as a mentor to and resource for female scientists who are interested in field work and hope to pursue a career in science.  Beyond work-life balance, she is also very aware of the particular challenges that female scientists can face in the field.  Given the large number of students, both male and female, who go into the field each summer for their research, she is very aware of the importance of providing training, resources and a support network so that all students can truly enjoy the amazing experience of conducting field research.