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Dr. Jay Sah grew up in a small village in Nepal, where houses are made of nature’s bounty and schoolwork is done in rooms lit by kerosene lamp or moonlight. As a child, Sah lived mostly without electricity until he moved to the larger urbanized city of Kathmandu for college. He was following the expectations that society had handed him: be a doctor or an engineer. Sah was advised to follow the path of medicine, but he never imagined that his journey would lead him to a life so different from the one he had left behind.

Sah is a research associate professor in the Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC). He uses multivariate analysis, statistical modeling and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze the responses of the plant community to natural and man-made changes in the environment. His findings ultimately inform water management decision-makers about how they can improve management policies in the Everglades to effectively address environmental challenges. Sah’s work helps protect critical animal and plant species living in this ecosystem, as well as preserve South Florida’s primary drinking water resource.

Decades later, Sah would find himself dedicated to saving lives for a living, just not in the way he anticipated when he began his adventure. While he isn’t setting broken bones, he is certainly healing broken habitats.

Name: Dr. Jay P. Sah 

Home Department: Southeast Environmental Research Center

How long have you been at FIU? In SERC? I joined FIU in 1995 as a Ph.D. student at the Department of Biological Sciences, and I have been working at SERC since 2002.

How did you start working in this field? Everyone has an “origin story,” what’s yours in term of how you got started doing this research? What drew you to the field? Why did you become a scientist in general? Back in Nepal, once you graduate from high school with good grades, you are expected to go into a science-related field.  My family advised me to become a doctor. So, in college I studied biology, intending to attend medical school after graduation. Unfortunately, at that time there were not any medical colleges in the country. The intense competition for the few medical school positions offered by other countries was a daunting challenge. At the same time, I was fascinated by the rich flora of Nepal. So, I decided to follow my passion to work on plants, and I ended up choosing ecology as a major. At that time, ecology was part of the Botany Department of Tribhuvan University, the only university within the country. One of the main reasons that I chose ecology was due to how much math is involved in it. I was strong in mathematics, so I combined my arithmetic skills and my passion for plants and began to formally study ecology. At that time ecology was the newest field in the Department, so it offered exciting opportunities in a field that was relatively unknown in Nepal. As I continued my studies, I realized that I had found my true passion: I veered away from the study of medicine and into the world of plants.

In a nutshell, what is your research about? I study the structure and function of plant communities, as well as how plant communities respond to natural and human-induced environmental changes. In the Everglades, my research focus is on the response of vegetation to changes in hydrologic and fire regimes, both impacted by water management activities. The goal of my work is to provide the sound scientific information that authorities and policymakers can use to make the most effective water management decisions. 

I was first exposed to the study of the Everglades while I was still working on my Ph.D. project on Nepal’s wetlands. I analyzed plant community data gathered in different landscapes under different projects. After I started full-time work in the Everglades, I intensively worked for four years on vegetation characterization in the marl prairies, the habitat of the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow.  After four years, and while still working on marl prairie vegetation, I was assigned to work on a data-driven classification of South Florida plant communities.  I gathered all available relevant vegetation data for South Florida from about 20 different projects and developed a classification system for herbaceous communities. That classification program was a turning point in my quest to become an established South Florida vegetation ecologist. The marl prairie habitat project was discontinued in 2010, but later got revived in 2014. Besides the sparrow habitat, I do research along the marl prairie-slough gradient, on Southern Everglades tree islands, and within the ridge-slough landscape where I study ecological processes, especially how plant communities respond to changes in abiotic and biotic drivers and stressors. Likewise, I am also involved in research on vegetation in pine rocklands and coastal ecosystems.

What excites you most about your research? Working in the Everglades! I have a passion for working in wetlands, and the Everglades is one of the greatest wetlands with the world’s biggest restoration project. There are so many changes happening continuously in the Everglades due to restoration, climate change, sea level rise, and human activity. These changes directly affect plant communities and, ultimately, the structure and function of the entire ecosystem. These changes motivate me to keep studying how plant communities respond to natural and manmade hydrological changes. Being able to communicate and inform the community and water management decision-makers of my findings and how to properly respond to them is so important. 

How do you think this research impacts people or the planet in a broader sense? I’ve been able to inform water management authorities about the impact of hydrologic changes happening in one of the world’s greatest wetlands. Whether my research informs future restoration efforts or flood control measures or just provides insight into how the plant community responds to these changes, this data is so important in finding out if we are doing things right and how we can be doing things better. Due to some human activity, plant communities are being severely impacted and are changing their natural responses in order to survive. Since plants make up habitats for animals, the consequences they face will ultimately change the whole structure and function of an ecosystem, so we need to learn how to respond accordingly to these changes. 

What is the goal of your research? Why is it important (to the people, to the planet, or just simply to you)? Generally, I study ecosystems in two different parts of the world; in the mountains and lowland floodplains of Nepal, and the other is the Everglades. It doesn’t matter if you are in a developed or developing country, there are some common factors – human activities and climate change- that impact our ecosystems. For instance, while the consumptive use of natural resource and pollution are a major culprit of wetland degradation and loss in Nepal, human-induced water management activities have been blamed for the deterioration of ecosystem condition in the Everglades. Similarly, there is sea level rise in Florida and there is melting of the Himalayan glaciers in Nepal, which both can affect the plant community and its habitat in wetlands. So, I work on a global problem and that’s what keeps me going because even though I work in the Everglades, I am ultimately working for humanity.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab/field? I love to work with the community. I had the opportunity to be part of a non-profit community organization that focuses on helping people that are coming from Nepal, as well as helping fundraise money for vulnerable Nepalese people and to rebuild schools previously destroyed by natural disasters, including the recent earthquake in Nepal. I may not live in Nepal anymore, but I will always remember where I come from.

I also love spending time with my family. After my Ph.D., part of the reason why I continued to stay in the States was because I wanted to give my family an opportunity to pursue their education and follow their dreams. Now, my wife, also an alumnus of FIU, works here in the Earth and Environment Department, my daughter works for NASA and my son at SpaceX!

Dr. Jay Sah is a research associate professor in the Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC), as well as an affiliate graduate faculty in the Department of Earth and Environment, and an FIU project collaborator of the Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research (FCE-LTER) project.