Science Advisory Board member Dr. Diana Tomback is a professor and associate chair with the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Colorado Denver. She also serves as volunteer director for the non-profit Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, based in Missoula, Mont. Dr. Tomback’s area of expertise includes evolutionary ecology, with application to forest ecology and conservation biology. For her doctoral research, she found that Clark’s nutcracker, a crow-like bird of high mountain forests, is the main seed disperser for whitebark pine. Her research over time has focused on the ecological and evolutionary consequences of seed dispersal by nutcrackers to whitebark pine and other pines.
Why did you choose to go into forest ecology?
You could say a not-so-little bird told me to do it! For my doctoral research, I was in Steve Rothstein’s lab in avian biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, investigating Clark’s nutcracker behavioral ecology in the eastern Sierra Nevada. After graduate school, I started asking questions that involved studies in forest ecology to understand how the nutcracker influenced the biology and ecology of whitebark pine.
Why high elevation forest communities? This came from a love of the high mountains from childhood and college experiences. Why nutcrackers and pines? Serendipity: As a Master’s student at UCLA, I was backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. As we rested under a whitebark pine, a bird flew in and began tearing apart the pine cones. I was fascinated, having just had an ornithology course. At UCLA, I looked into the literature and discovered that little was known about the Clark’s nutcracker.
What is your favorite aspect or favorite part of your field?
First of all, learning and understanding — the discovery process — about forest communities is what keeps me going. In the Clark’s nutcracker-white pine interaction, there have been many very exciting moments in the lab and field. But, the over-arching pleasure to me is being in these high elevation and treeline forests. It’s hard to explain, but I feel they are my “habitat.”
What was the most difficult moment or encounter that you’ve experienced in pursuit of your work?
There have been challenges connected with many projects, including having grizzly bears in our study areas and experiencing extreme weather, but having my 2-year-old son in the field with me and my students during a Yellowstone post-fire project was probably the most difficult, logistically.
What do you think the biggest issue facing forest health is today?
The obvious answer is the uncertain future our forests face with climate change. But more challenging and potentially as — or more — damaging is the influx of exotic pests and pathogens, which are damaging our forests at a rapid pace. I study the ecological effects of white pine blister rust, caused by a pathogen introduced more than a century ago, and the effects are absolutely devastating for a group of white pines — commercially and ecologically. Blister rust is not an isolated case — chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, sudden oak death and pests like emerald ash borer and the hemlock wooly adelgid all threaten our forests.
Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?
I have several literary favorites, including Sherlock Holmes, who approached his investigations with deductive reasoning. I also relate to the character Dr. Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster in Contact, a movie about obtaining first proof of intelligent extra-terrestrial life, and to the characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation when they were problem-solving under the leadership of Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be? Why?
If I weren’t scientist I probably would have become an artist or gone into creative writing. The artist part of me loves where I do my research. These were interests and skills I had cultivated earlier in my life.
Where is your favorite spot to experience nature and why?
There have some places that were extremely special — almost “magic” in a way. But time and too many visitors have changed the dynamic. For example, I remember Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park while growing up — there were many fewer people and it was wilder. Since then, I have been privileged to work in a number of extraordinary but different places, especially in the Rocky Mountains ranging from the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona north to Willmore Wilderness Park in Canada. Willmore, by the way, is largely undisturbed and absolutely spectacular. I thank my Canadian colleagues for opportunities to work there.
To learn more about the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, visit whitebarkfound.org.