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July 6, 1995


Basic ecologists study organisms. Their focus could be deer, trees, grasses, aquatic vegetation, ants or any other element of the earth's flora and fauna. They focus on such things as physiology and genetics, and how changes in the environment can affect an organism.

Environmental scientists are more interested in ecosystems and the social and economic interaction of humans with those systems. That could mean the effect of a housing development on a lake or farming practices on the wildlife that attract tourists.

Even though the two groups might seem to have a lot in common, traditionally they have not interacted very closely. And that is one thing Stephen Tonsor, the new director of Pitt's Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, would like to see change.

"I am looking forward to the opportunity to branch out a little bit," says Tonsor, who is himself a basic ecologist, "and interact with people in areas of expertise that I haven't previously had the opportunity to formally interact with in my research." Actually, Tonsor already has taken some steps in that direction. Since arriving at Pitt from Michigan State University's W.K. Kellogg Biological Station on May 1, he has met with faculty members in geology, engineering and economics who have an interest in ecology. In addition, he has begun preliminary talks with a faculty member in the School of Engineering about conducting a watershed study of Pymatuning Reservoir. The study would look at such things as the reservoir's hydrology, the influence of human activities on it and runoff in relationship to land use practices.

Although Pymatuning Reservoir and adjacent Pymatuning State Park are important recreational resources in western Pennsylvania, no one has ever examined land use practices in the area and how they might influence the ecosystem, according to Tonsor.

"My feeling is that we could do a real community service and gain some basic scientific information about ecosystem function by studying the whole watershed of the Pymatuning Reservoir," he says.

Another possible area of cross discipline study might be economics. According to Tonsor, economists who visited the Pymatuning field station talked with him in general terms about land use practices and the value of various ecosystem attributes in both economic and aesthetics terms.

An ecological economics study could examine the ways monetary value can be set on things like beauty and long-term ecosystem function that do not seem to have an immediate economic benefit. Those values then could be factored in against the much more direct and immediate economic opportunity costs of zoning practices.

"One very interesting avenue would be to do an economic study of the impact of present deer herd management practices," says Tonsor. "About 43,000 deer are killed on highways each year. We could look at costs to insurance, native plants, farming and other species." During his talks with economists at Pymatuning, Tonsor learned that there exists a large body of literature and a well worked out system for ascribing economic value on such scales as beauty and ecosystem health.

While it may seem Philistine to set an economic price on those items, such a scale of value could be very important to environmentalists struggling to protect an ecosystem in these days when elected officials seem to be thinking about nothing but the bottom line, he notes. Along with venturing into other disciplines, Tonsor also wants Pitt's Pymatuning Laboratory to become more involved with non-traditional university groups. He plans more classes and programs geared toward older people and students in high school and even elementary school. Over the next couple of years, too, Tonsor would like to see the research station become more involved with the community by offering workshops where people could be briefed on the issues involved in water quality management.

"I see that as doing the applied work of ecologists," he says. "That is helping communities to understand what impact they have on their ecosystem and how to interact with the ecosystem in such a way that they have sustained ecosystem health and sustained prosperity in their communities." Pymatuning Laboratory also could serve as a source of expertise when a community needs scientific data in order to better make an environmental decision, Tonsor adds.

"Our idea wouldn't be to tell them how they ought to manage their water, but to give them the tools they need to make the decisions themselves on how to manage their water," he explains. Still, no matter how successful Tonsor may be in steering the Pymatuning field station in new directions, he says the primary goal of the facility under his leadership will remain education and training in the ecological sciences. But even there he envisions some changes. Along with formal classroom education, he expects to provide students with more hands-on experience in the field and increase the opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research at the laboratory.

"That means offering internships, offering independent study courses where there is a formal goal," he says. "They [students] would have a formal project that they develop with the researchers and participate directly with a group of researchers who are working on a particular problem." As far as research itself is concerned, Tonsor says he wants to increase the breadth of research projects and bring in more researchers from outside of the University. He feels it is very important in any field that a person not be insulated from the diversity of views in that field. "Working completely within one's own institution is limiting," he explains. "A lot of good work can be done in such a way, but you need to be challenged from time to time, too, and challenges comes from interactions with people outside your daily experience." Tonsor also believes such exposure helps graduate students to understand what part of their daily training is idiosyncratic to their professor and their institution as opposed to something that is part of the field as a whole. "So, increasing the breadth of the people working here is a major goal," he says.

On the personal front, Tonsor plans to continue his research on ecological genetics and micro evolutionary processes, specifically the ability of native plants to genetically adapt to a changing environment.

Pointing out that the Earth right now is in a phase where humans are having an increasing impact on natural populations of organisms through global warming and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Tonsor says one source of resiliency for plants are changes in genetic makeup through the process of natural selection. Genetic changes can lead to organisms that are more resistant to pollution of various types or are better adapted to the changing nutrient regime caused by humans manipulating the environment through farming and other practices.

"My work examines the mechanisms by which these organisms change genetically and the time scales over which those kinds of changes can occur," Tonsor says. "Can they occur fast enough that organisms maintain healthy populations during these periods of transition?" Born in central Illinois, Tonsor grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and, "mainly because I was already there," attended the University of Michigan. He earned a Bachelor of Science in zoology from Michigan in 1977 and a master's of science degree in biology in 1978.

From Michigan, he went on to the University of Chicago, where he earned a second master's of science degree, this time in biology, in 1982, and then a Ph.D. in biology in 1983. After leaving Chicago, Tonsor taught at West Virginia University from 1983 until 1985, when he joined the faculty at Michigan State's Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, Mich., located about midway between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.

Tonsor was alerted to the opening at Pymatuning by his wife, Susan Kalisz-Tonsor, who also joined Pitt's Department of Biological Sciences on May 1. He was not originally interested in the director's position, but then changed his mind, decided to apply for it and found he liked the people he met during a visit to Pitt. He says he especially found it easy to communicate with David Burgess, chairperson of biological sciences.

"I really liked the atmosphere in the biological sciences department," he recalls. "It's a very collegial, very open atmosphere. The department is heavily oriented toward molecular and developmental work. Despite that, people in the department seemed very excited about building a program in ecology. "It looked to me," he continues, "as though there was a real opportunity to both build the station in stature and activity, and to participate in the growing program in ecology and evolution in the department." The history of Pitt's Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology was another selling point for Tonsor. He notes that the station started on Lake Erie in the early 1930s and moved to Pymatuning after World War II. "It's been around a long time," he says. "A great many people around the United States know of it by its historical reputation and I found that attractive."

–Mike Sajna

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