Turning point: Heather Schneider

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When a postdoc joins an initiative to collect baseline plant data, she finds its rewards come in forms other than research papers.

For her postdoc, ecologist Heather Schneider joined Project Baseline, a nationwide US initiative that is developing a seed bank for future scientists to study how plants are evolving in response to climate change. The project has left her little time for her own research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but the skills she has gained have broadened her career avenues.

What is a field season like?

Christopher True

It's really daunting. Project Baseline's goal is to collect seeds from 43 species — at 10 sites for each one. The project so far has collected 3 million seeds from species both native and introduced. My adviser, Susan Mazer, and I oversee collection in the western region — 237 distinct plant populations of 20 species — and this is the final of 3 field seasons. I spend January to March getting field permits to collect specimens in national and state parks, nature preserves and the University of California reserves. Then I use herbarium records to find historical populations. I try to visit each of our sites twice a season — once while plants are in bloom, to find populations more easily and to collect environmental data, and again to gather seeds. Last year, our field season ended in mid-October.

What about this project lured you away from a pure research focus?

Few things are as important as understanding how ecosystems will respond to climate change. I was interested in helping to create a resource that would be useful for both basic and applied science for the next 50 years. To me, that would have a big impact on ecology and evolutionary biology — much bigger than any single paper I would ever write. I also felt that I have the set of skills — field botany, plant identification and collection of herbarium specimens — necessary for the job.

Did it feel risky to move away from conventional research?

A little. Although my career trajectory has zig-zagged, there has been one underlying theme — assessing the impact of human-made threats to ecosystems. I have focused on invasive species, air pollution and habitat degradation. I joke that when you work on short-term grants, you end up with a long tail of 'publications in progress' that follow you from job to job. I'm still working on papers from one to two jobs ago. So it was appealing that there would be less pressure to publish in this position, which could give me a chance to catch up on papers I'm still working on.

Does publishing less concern you?

The principal investigators on the project made sure that our efforts benefited my and the other postdocs' careers. Susan and I work on a greenhouse experiment in the off-season, when we're not in the field for Project Baseline. We have one paper in revision and one in review, so I still am getting papers out.

What are your hopes for future use of this resource?

The research possibilities are huge. Given my own interests, I hope that people will use it to look at ecological interactions. For example, as pollinator communities change, how will that affect wild-plant reproduction? I'm also interested in what the weedy species will do — will the geographical areas where they are found shrink or expand?

What are your job prospects?

I would be interested in a teaching job at a smaller university. I am OK not ending up at a top-tier research university because funding rates are not that encouraging. And the skills I have gained on Project Baseline — project management, budgets, organization, trouble-shooting — are applicable to all kinds of other jobs.

Do you plan to promote use of Project Baseline data in future?

Yes. The postdocs on the project want to feel that this resource will be well cared for. I know there are plans to advertise it widely. The principal investigators invited all the postdocs to be on the advisory board, and it is nice to know that we will have a part in evaluating the proposals for its use in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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