STEM Careers Interview Series: Holden Forest & Gardens, Plant Biologist, Katie Stuble

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It is my pleasure to introduce another outstanding STEM professional located in Northeast Ohio, Katie Stuble. Katie is an ecologist and works as a plant biologist with Holden Forest & Gardens (HF&G) where she runs the Community Ecology Lab at Holden’s Research Department.

For my readers not familiar with HF&G, it is made up of two of Northeast Ohio’s most important environmental and cultural institutions – Holden Arboretum & the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. An ecologist, like Katie, studies the relationships between organisms (living things) and their environments. Often times an ecologist collects samples and data from fieldwork to research and determine environmental impacts of present and potential use of land and water habitats. Outcomes to their research could result in environmental restoration projects or plans for habitat management.

Katie conducts research there exploring the biodiversity of Ohio’s forests. She and her team monitor how global climate change might alter the forests, then they use this knowledge to understand how to best manage and restore the forested ecosystems in Ohio.

I am so excited to share Katie’s story in my STEM Career Interview Series!

MTF: In your own words, how would you describe your job to a child?

KS: I’m an ecologist, which means that I study the how organisms interact with one another and with the environment to shape the natural world. I’m particularly interested in understanding how humans are changing these ecological interactions by altering the climate and introducing species to new locations around the globe. I also work to understand how we can restore the natural areas that have been damaged by people. 

MTF: In your opinion, why is the study of ecology important to the community?  Can you give a real example of how your studies and research have specifically impacted Northeast Ohio?

KS: Studying how our natural world operates lets us understand how our actions influence it, and how we can protect and restore the environment. At the Holden Arboretum, we have a cool project that we started a couple years ago in a section of the arboretum called the “Working Woods”. In the Working Woods the research group has teamed up with Holden’s conservation department to manage a young forest recovering years after agriculture. At the same time, we’re measuring how natural management improves forest productivity, biodiversity, and resilience. Visitors can come to Working Woods to get ideas for how to manage their own land to increase forest health.  

MTF:  Growing up, what were your favorite subjects and why? 

KS: I always loved science classes, but biology and physics were two of my favorites. Great teachers can make a huge impact and I had really wonderful teachers for biology and physics in high school. 

MTF:  What did you study in college and how / why did you choose it/them? 

KS: I studied biology in college, primarily because I was fascinated by the patterns and processes that govern the natural world. I took classes on everything from genetics, to virology (the study of viruses), to limnology (the study of freshwater systems). I finally landed on ecology, which is what my Masters and PhD are in. 

MTF: Could you briefly describe your career journey?

KS: I fell in love with ecology as an undergraduate in college. After college I got a masters degree and then a PhD in ecology. New PhDs in the field of ecology typically do something called a post-doc. Post-doc positions last a couple of years and are a chance to get more experience doing research. I did post-docs in Oklahoma and California. I suspected I’d become a professor after post-docing, but I landed this amazing job at the Holden Arboretum, which allows me to do cool research on forest restoration, teach graduate students and interns, and talk to folks in northeast Ohio about the amazing processes taking place in the forests and old fields around here. 

MTF:  In your opinion, what are the most important attributes or characteristics that a scientist in your field must have to be successful?  

KS: It would be hard to choose a single most important attribute. Most scientists tend to have an innate curiosity, but beyond that, there are so many different pathways to success in science. Some scientists are amazingly creative, others are very analytical. Some might be highly organized or great at working with people.  

MTF:  What has been the most rewarding part of your career?

KS: Flexibility! I have a lot of freedom in what I study, and get to follow where the clues lead me. 

MTF:  What has been the most challenging part of your career?

KS: Juggling! A science career has so many facets. That makes the job amazing, but also challenging. A scientist is constantly managing multiple experiments. We’re setting up and taking down experiments, analyzing data, writing up results, teaching, reviewing the work of our colleagues, and much more. 

Katie in ‘Stuble Lab’ at HF&G.

MTF:  Do you have fun, exciting or even embarrassing memories or stories from your STEM career that you would be willing to share?

KS: I used to work in southern Georgia, studying the ecology of longleaf pine savannas. Longleaf pine savannas are these amazingly diverse but incredibly threatened ecosystems in the southeastern US. One day, I was sampling the plants growing in a seasonal wetland. We were sampling in the dry season, so the wetland was primarily dry just then, with the exception of the very center – an area we called “the hole”. The deepest part of the wetland, “the hole” was wet year-round, and became critical habitat for a lot of the wetland’s wildlife in the dry season. The transect line (a straight line that you sample plants along) I had laid out ran right through a thicket immediately adjacent to the hole. And when I say thicket, I mean a thick, seemingly impenetrable wall of plants that I was going to have to crawl through. I was nervous. That thicket would be prime habitat for all sorts of wetland wildlife, including snakes (copperheads and cottonmouths in that region)! Nervous, I crawled in and immediately scared a snake just a foot ahead of me, which darted off into the hole. I felt relieved that I had encountered the snake, and it had moved on. No problem. But one more foot in, and another snake darted off into the hole. I sat up a bit and pushed a branch aside, only to see a snake right on the branch next to my hand. That was too much for me! I scrambled back out of the thicket as fast as I could move. I sent my partner in to finish up the transect, but she, too, encountered 3 more snakes in quick succession and we gave up on the line! It might be the only time I have ever given up on field work.

MTF:  What would your advice be to parents and / or educators to help children build confidence and interest in the STEM fields?  

KS: Children are natural scientists, constantly exploring the world and asking great questions! Techniques can be learned, but that curiosity is really the base of good science and kids have it in abundance. 

I think something lots of people don’t understand is how incredibly flexible a career in science is, and how accommodating it can be for so many types of learning styles and strengths. My husband and I are both research scientists, but we go about our jobs in very different ways. He’s much better at math than I am, but I’m more organized and am a better writer (to be fair, he’s not a native English speaker). The job is flexible though, so you can lean into your strengths and collaborate with other scientists in areas where you might be weaker. Sometimes my husband and I collaborate with each other, we also collaborate with people all around the world. We work with brilliant scientists who are dyslexic, or autistic, or struggle with anxiety. So, I’d encourage any kid that shows an interest in science to keep asking questions and stay curious. 

MTF: If you could give advice to your younger self, based on your career journey so far, what would it be?

KS: Work hard when you’re working, but don’t work all the time!  (I still need to give myself that advice sometimes.)

MTF:  Is there any other advice you have for children that are interested in your field?  

KS: Play outside and ask lots of questions. That still pretty much sums up my job. 

MTF: What are your top 3 favorite forests and gardens to visit in Northeast Ohio and why?

We’ve only lived here for four years, so there is still so much for us to explore! 

We love any park with creek access. We often spend a day wading in a creek, looking for critters in the water and fossils in the rocks. 

I really love the wildflower garden at the Holden Arboretum. I visit the wildflower garden every time I visit the arboretum. It’s planted entirely with Ohio natives and is a great place to explore the diversity within and across Ohio’s ecosystems. 

In spring, Piersons Creek Valley at the Holden Arboretum is a spectacular place to see all of Ohio’s amazing spring ephemeral wildflowers. Species like Trillium, Trout Liliy, Bloodroot, and Spring Beauty  put on a pretty spectacular show every April. 

Thank you , Katie and HF&G for allowing me to interview one of their scientists.

Katie is very active and gives back to the community in many ways. She promotes science literacy and accessibility in Cleveland and beyond. In addition to bringing science learning to events at the Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden, she also conducts outreach with partner organizations such as the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Women in Science Day. She mentors PhD students at Case Western as well as numerous summer interns; training the next generation of scientists and restoration practitioners. Katie also runs a citizen science group of thirty volunteers who help collect data, while learning about the natural history and management of Ohio’s forests.

Katie has a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Tennessee, an MS in Ecology from the University of Georgia, and a BA in Biology from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She is an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University. She is an editor for the peer-reviewed scientific journals Ecology, Natural Areas Journal, and PeerJ, and serves on the Scientific Review Committee for the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center. She lives in Mentor with her husband, Ivan Juric, and son Martin.

Katie’s team works in collaboration with Cleveland State, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and The Wilderness Center. Together they quantify the impacts of proper management on forest resilience and then demonstrate them to landowners in order to improve forest health beyond Holden’s borders. Katie has published her work in top ecology journals including Ecology, Journal of Ecology, and Ecological Applications.  You can follow Katie on Twitter @klstuble.

Holden Arboretum is located east of Cleveland in beautiful Kirtland, Ohio. It has stunning garden landscapes, cool forest hiking trails, fun children’s nature play areas, and the beauty of the trees changing in the fall are nothing like anything you’ve ever seen. It is one of the largest arboreta in the United States at 3,500 acres. The Cleveland Botanical Gardens is located in University Circle near downtown Cleveland, Ohio. It encompasses a 10 acres of outdoor gardens and a large Glasshouse full of plants, butterflies, birds, and desert animals.

If you haven’t yet visited HF&G, it’s worth making a trip! The gardens are absolutely beautiful and peaceful. Be sure to follow HF&G on Instagram @CleGarden, on Facebook The Holden Arboretum & Cleveland Botanical Garden, on Twitter @HFandG and @Holdenarboretum for more fun and unique scientific discoveries, natural photography, educational opportunities and events!


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