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Interview with Robert Peet, August 11, 2016

Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia
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00:00:52 - Majoring in ecology

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Partial Transcript: Could you talk a bit about how you got interested in ecology?

Segment Synopsis: Peet talks about how his childhood experiences in summer camp peaked his interest in ecology. Peet relates his experience writing a paper in tenth grade, for which he chose to write about ecology. He describes how he came to learn more about ecology through the writing process, and talks about his other interests including physics, biology, and economics--all of which he tried in an effort to decide on a major. Peet talks about how taking a course on ecological literature inspired him to change his major from biology to ecology.

Keywords: Beloit, Wisconsin; John Thomas Curtis; Master of Science; The Vegetation of Wisconsin; University of Wisconsin-Madison; ecology

00:08:21 - Experiences in graduate school / The Vietnam War

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Partial Transcript: The summer of '68, after having had that course...

Segment Synopsis: Peet talks about a trip he took with a friend in college where they traveled around the United States and southern Canada to study the ecology of natural parks. Peet describes taking a course with Hugh H. Iltis, and an additional ecological methods course at Wisconsin-Madison Universiy, during which Peet learned how to use computers for research. Peet relates his experience attending Cornell University for graduate school. He also mentions purposefully getting an incomplete on one of his undergraduate courses so as to prolong his graduation date and thereby extend his military deferment to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Peet recalls that the emergence of the draft lottery system eventually forced him into service, though Peet states that he was able to secure a position in a reserve unit. Pete talks about his masters thesis, which was focused on botany plant classification. He describes the environmental movement of the 1970s, and how it affected the University of Madison-Wisconsin, as it led to a series of campus rallies and social movements.

Keywords: Cornell University; Hugh H. Iltis; Robert Whittaker; The Vietnam War Draft Lottery; Vietnam War; botany; computer science; ecological methods; taxonomy

00:15:32 - Master's thesis / Additional research projects

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Partial Transcript: So you finished your Masters of Science in '71...

Segment Synopsis: Peet talks about an article he wrote for graduate school about species diversity which was published in 1974. Peet recalls that his master's thesis focused on addressing the language used in ecology among academics. He recounts how he came to decide his dissertation topic while he was at lunch with his peers. Pete talks about how he decided to go to Rocky Mountain National Park for two summers to conduct research for a new research topic focused on gradient analysis and the population recovery of forests from environmental disturbance.

Keywords: David Glenn-Lewin; Jean H. Langenheim; Masters of Science; Robert Whittaker; Rocky Mountain National Park; dissertation; forest

00:22:10 - Alternative dissertation topics and methods / Computers and ecology

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Partial Transcript: I eventually, about two years later, decided I'm going to go on a road trip to collect data about other places.

Segment Synopsis: Peet talks about the alternative approaches he could have taken towards his dissertation, in which he delves into the alternate approaches to researching the landscape cycles. Peet explains how his developed gradient system was used as a method to describe the "maturing" cycles of a forest. Peet recalls his experience having Robert Whittaker as an ecology professor and recounts that Whittaker allowed and encouraged students to take liberty in their research. Peet talks about the significance of computers for ecological work; he explains that the use of computers became more prominent in conducting quantitative research as a method of analyzing data over the course of his career. He talks about his eventual move to North Carolina during 1975 for a position that opened up at the University of North Carolina.

Keywords: Albert Ernest Radford; North Carolina; Robert Whittaker; TUCC (Triangle University Computer Center); computers; gradient diagrams; numerical methods

00:31:06 - Working at University of North Carolina / Research at UNC-Chapel Hill

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Partial Transcript: Were there any dominate intellectual trends at North Carolina, in ecology, at that time?

Segment Synopsis: Peet explains the state of ecological academia status of University of North Carolina at the time he arrived. Peet talks about the broad academic areas studied by UNC's Botany Department, which was later replaced by a Biology Department. Peet explains that the Botany Department was slowly dismantled and people eventually left. He describes his research in forest succession in North Carolina-- a project which he undertook with the assistance of a fellow ecologist, Norm Christensen. Peet recalls that the data recorded enabled Peet and Christensen to make geographic conclusions about the land. Pete discusses how the ancient landscapes of North Carolina led to a largely diverse geography, a conclusion he reached after researching the area.

Keywords: Botany; Hardwood Forest, North Carolina; National Science Foundation (NSF); Norman L. Christensen; Triassic Basin; University of North Carolina (UNC)

00:38:47 - Stages of forest maturation / Creating the southeastern chapter of the Ecological Society of America

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Partial Transcript: So we've looked at a lot of things beyond the standard establishment patterns.

Segment Synopsis: Peet explains the phases of forest maturation, with the final stage of maturation being the development of hardwood forest. Peet talks about how his research supported the fact that succession forest models should be created with regard to the specifications of the forest itself, and should take into consideration factors such as time, soil quality and other geological aspects. Peet recalls co- founding the southeastern chapter of the Ecological Society of America after arriving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1976. Pete credits Frank McCormick as the chapter's other co-founder.

Keywords: Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Ecological Society of America; Frank McCormick; Hardwood Forest; International Association for Vegetation and Science (IAVS); succession; under-story

00:45:40 - Research excursions under ESA

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Partial Transcript: So what is vegetation science, and how is it different from ecology?

Segment Synopsis: Peet explains that vegetation science is a subset of ecology and further explains that vegetation science focuses on the co-occurrence of plant species across a landscape. Peet talks about his proposal of hosting a field excursions section through ESA for gathering vegetation research, a program which continued until it encountered legality issues. Peet talks about how the combination of David Tilman's studies on plant ecology and his research on a variety of grasslands led him to realize that the diversity of the vegetation of Europe was dropping due to excess nitrogen content in the atmosphere.

Keywords: David G. Tilman; Ecological Society of America (ESA); climate change; ecology; vegetation classification; vegetation science

00:53:41 - Research in North Carolina / Creation of Vegbank

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Partial Transcript: Was there anything that caused you to suddenly shift to a new direction...

Segment Synopsis: Peet recalls how, throughout his career, he became more broadened in his research in the Carolina's. Peet states he expanded his research from one section of forest to the research of larger forested regions. Peet talks about how ESA's excursions led to the development of several research projects, including research on vegetation classification and small scale diversity. Peet discusses a meeting with other botanists in which they discussed a unified national approach to vegetation classification, which eventually led to the establishment of the ESA vegetation panel, focused on the classification of vegetation. Peet describes the discrepancies throughout the Americas concerning vegetation classification, and how it led to the creation of Vegbank, an online classification system used for discerning species across North America.

Keywords: Dennis Grossman; Ecological Society of America Vegetation Panel; Michael Jennings; Nation Science Foundation; North Carolina; VegBank; excursion; log scale; vegetation classification

01:02:23 - Application of past gathered data / Biodiversity of Roanoke Rapids

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Partial Transcript: We did develop the ESA panel out of that long history of discussions...

Segment Synopsis: Pete talks about the creation of the national vegetation classification system, VegBank, and describes the revision process for entries pertaining to vegetation plots. Peet describes the "gang of four" who conducted research excursions; they included botanists Tom Wentworth, Mike Schafale, Alan S. Weakley, and Peet himself. Peet describes the importance of gathering long-term data about forests, as it can be used to evaluate changes in the environment over time. Peet relates through previous data gathering projects, how the data gathered can later be used for future questions. As an example, Peet talks about the flooding of the Roanoke River flood plain, and how previous data gathered helped prevent the destruction of the biodiversity of the river caused by the Roanoke Rapids Dam.

Keywords: Alan S. Weakley; Michael P. Schafale; National Heritage Program; Roanoke Rapids; Tom Wentworth; University of North Carolina; University of North Carolina Herbarium; research

01:10:00 - Construction of Roanoke Rapids Dam / Working as Secretary for the ESA

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Partial Transcript: You're raising the question of the relationship between ecology and management...

Segment Synopsis: Peet talks about his experience persuading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change their management in order to preserve the biodiversity of Roanoke Rapids, which would have been harmed by the construction of the dam. Peet explains that The Nature Conservancy helped with providing data supporting the re-management proposed. Peet explains how conflict of interests between many groups required additional data and lobbying in order to convince people to allow for the renovation of the dam. Peet talks about his role as secretary of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) during which he organized the history of the organization, rewrote the organization's constitution, created the first ESA webpage, and become the first editor-in-chief of ecology and ecological monographs.

Keywords: Army Core of Engineers; Dennis Knight; Dominion Power North Carolina; Ecological Society of America; Ecological Society of America (ESA); Lee N. Miller; Sam Pearsall; The Nature Conservancy

01:17:04 - Teaching ecology today / Broadening the field of ecology

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Partial Transcript: Something else I did, with the advice of a few other people, was create ecological archives.

Segment Synopsis: Peet continues to describe the work he accomplished while head of the ESA including the creation of the ecological archives and the development of the first digital submissions system for ecological manuscripts. Peet talks about the need for graduate students in ecology to be updated in the field in terms of methodology and literature. Peet mentions his apprehension towards hands-on teaching as opposed to lecture, explaining that lecture provides the specific knowledge needed in understanding ecological topics. Peet talks about the increasing coordination between international ecologists as evidenced by the increasing number of authors who contributed to a publication. Peet talks about the management of the integration of data through eco-informatics, a science used for organizing ecological data.

Keywords: Ecological Society of America; Historical Records Committee; Publication Committee; archives; bioinformatics; ecology

01:26:23 - Consolidating information / Future of ecology

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Partial Transcript: Does the Ecological Society have a role to play in this kind of activity?

Segment Synopsis: Peet talks about the need for the Ecological Society of America to improve the standards of ecological data. He emphasizes the necessity for coordination among ESA and other organizations to achieve the unification of the information provided by such groups on both national and international standards. Peet talks about the lack of field work conducted by students studying ecology. Peet voices approval of the direction of ESA concerning the organization's expansion of open-access journalism and involvement in government. He addresses the ambiguity surrounding the future of ecology in terms of the questions faced by future ecologists, and he reminds the audience to keep an open mind towards science. Peet talks about the need for students to be literate enough to understand molecular biology in order to better understand ecology.

Keywords: ecology; molecular biology