An Allegiance to the Tropics: New Mentor, Researcher Takes Lead at TRI

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

people simon queenborough Simon Queenborough
This summer, Simon Queenborough took over leadership as Musser Director of the Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), where he will manage one of the School’s most far-reaching and accomplished programs, and mentor the master’s and doctoral students in the Institute’s successful Fellowship program. He will also serve as a lecturer and research scientist at F&ES.
Queenborough, who comes to F&ES from Ohio State University, has studied the ecology of plants in tropical systems, especially the biodiverse forests of the Amazonian Ecuador. He also has extensive field experience working with native peoples, as well as interdisciplinary collaboration with sociologists, economics, physicists, and farmers.
In an interview, he describes what drew him into the field of tropical forestry, the greatest challenges facing the planet’s tropical areas, and how TRI can make a difference.

What attracted you to the field of tropical forestry?
I started life as an avid birder, was given my first binoculars at age 6, and went up to Cambridge University intending to study penguins in Antarctica. However, after some inspiring and eye-opening (and heavily-bearded) lecturers in the botany department and summer expeditions to South Africa and Panama, I switched allegiance to plants. They are easier to find than animals, don’t run away or squeal when tagged, and offer a wholly different worldview for thinking about some of the most complex questions in biology.
I sought further training opportunities with exciting and inspiring teachers — Edinburgh, one of the great botanical gardens, followed by Aberdeen, one of the most northerly universities in the UK. I think you find more tropical scientists the farther north you go! Most of the researchers I admire had spent long periods in the field, so I followed their example, with a summer working in Belize, several years in Ecuador (and establishing a long-term continuing project), followed by a combination of rigorous quantitative training and more fieldwork for two post-docs.
Being Director of TRI is the perfect combination of my research and teaching interests. As an assistant professor at The Ohio State University, I found teaching undergraduates and mentoring graduate students tremendously rewarding. In F&ES, having the opportunity to mentor students through the entire research process, from idea, to grant proposal, to published manuscript, is exciting and I am very much looking forward to meeting the returning TRI Fellows and encouraging new ones in the autumn.
What has been your major focus of study?
Most of my work focuses on how individuals, species, and communities (including humans) interact over ecological and evolutionary time. Over the past 15 years, I have spent long periods in the field in Latin America and Europe, carrying out long-term research on plant population dynamics in old-growth tropical forests and managed arable farming communities. My current research interests include understanding mechanisms of diversity, breeding systems and resource allocation, and quantitative methods in population dynamics. My current teaching interests include tropical field courses, statistical analyses in the software R, and the graphical presentation of data.
What do you see as the greatest threats facing the world’s tropical forests, particularly in the Amazonian Ecuador? And what are the best hopes for protecting them?
The situation in Ecuador is extremely complex with many competing interests, as I am sure F&ES faculty and students are all too well aware. Ecuador has a number of large and very diverse national parks. My main field site, in Yasuni National Park, is among the most diverse places on the planet. Most of the indirect threats to these forests come from illegal logging, and petroleum exploration and exploitation.
While the technology to extract petroleum in an environmentally low-impact manner is available, it is expensive, and so access roads remain the default option, opening the way for local people to move in along them and settle, cutting forest to grow crops. (Many of the soils of Ecuador are extremely fertile, a result of volcanic ash blowing down from the Andes). On the western slopes of the Andes, very little humid forest remains — only small pockets amidst banana and cacao plantations.
The indigenous population in Amazonian Ecuador adds several other hues to the picture: on their land, they can do as they wish, often leading to localized over-hunting around settlements; however, several groups remain uncontacted and violently repel outsiders, leading to official “intangible zones” that have never been visited by anyone else and are purposefully left so. In such wilderness areas as this, it is theoretically possible to maintain relatively pristine environments if the reserve is large enough and settlers are excluded.
In other parks in more developed areas with easier access, the coexistence of reserve and people is obviously more of an issue. Recently, the ambitious Yasuni-ITT Initiative to compensate Ecuador for leaving petroleum in the ground sadly failed to gain enough support.
What role can TRI play in protecting these critical regions?
Scientists requesting permits, visiting, and working in these areas shows governments that there are other active interests besides national economies and GDP. While in some senses, the biological questions of reserves are easy — protect as large an area as possible connected with as many other large areas as possible — many questions still remain, in terms of how populations persist and how large they need to be. Further, fundamental questions do remain, such as how many species there are — we are not even sure what we share the planet with.
Apart from primary forest, secondary forest is increasing in many parts of the world as more people move to cities and fields are abandoned: does this forest ever return to its primary state, and does it have to? The role of a multi-disciplinary institute such as TRI, and F&ES more generally, is key in not only answering the questions of how the biology works, but also the knotty problem of how the biology interacts and can coexist with humans over the long-term, because many of the solutions to biological problems are social and political.
Do you have any specific goals for TRI?
The mission of TRU is to support interdisciplinary, problem-oriented student research on the most complex challenges confronting the conservation and management of tropical environments and natural resources worldwide. The 30th anniversary of TRI and the influx of new faculty in F&ES studying tropical forests is the perfect time to raise the profile of TRI, and seek to expand our funding of students and other activities.
Are there new things you’d like to try? New partnerships you'd like to explore?
We will be thinking how we can expand the “resources” part of our name to develop wider educational opportunities for a broader student base, as well as other resources that are useful to students and workers in tropical countries. This is going to be an exciting year for TRI and F&ES, so watch this space!
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842