Meet our SERC scientists: Dr. Michael Ross

Dr. Michael Ross spends much of his job interpreting what the history of our environments can tell us about how to help them survive and adapt to our changing world. Ross is a researcher in the Southeast Environmental Research Center and a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment. He studies the consequences that our ecosystems and landscapes face due to natural and man-made disturbances.

Michael Ross in the field

Ross spends his time in the marshes of the Everglades and the wetlands of South Florida identifying where time and humanity have taken a toll on our natural environments. He underlines the importance of looking back in order to know how to move forward.

Name: Michael Steven Ross

Home Department: Department of Earth and Environment

How long have you been at FIU? In SERC? I have been both in SERC and FIU since August 1993.

How would you describe yourself as a scientist? How do you identify your title and role? I am a forest and landscape ecologist.

How did you start working in this field? I am originally from Philadelphia. I graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Science degree with the intention of going to medical school after. In an unexpected turn, I eventually realized that I wanted to stay away from hospitals as much as possible! So instead, I pursued my passion for the outdoors at Utah State, where I got my master’s degree in Forestry. After earning my masters, I applied to Virginia Tech for graduate school. It’s there that I worked on soils, hardwood stand dynamics, silviculture and forest ecology. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would later lead me to do my post-doctoral research at the University of Alberta, Canada on aspects of boreal forest ecology, while running the field station. I eventually moved back to the United States for a research associate position in Michigan, and also got motivated to broaden my studies to pursue yet another master’s degree at the University of Vermont Law School on environmental law and natural resource policy.

Michael Ross in his early career in the field

At the start of my career, I worked at the Audubon Society in the Keys for five years as an ecologist. That’s also where I met another SERC scientist, Dr. Jack Meeder, and learned a lot about how NGOs work. I made some good connections at Audubon and was privileged to land some impressive contracts with the South Florida Water Management District to work on coastal wetlands. During that time, Ron Jones, the very first SERC director was helping me conduct nutrient analyses for my project’s ecosystem analysis in the Keys. Before I knew it, he asked me to come and work with him at SERC. That’s when FIU became my new home base. In 2006, I was appointed as a faculty member in the Department of Earth and Environment.

In a nutshell, what is your research about? Right now, I’m working in four areas: coastal wetlands, dry tropical forests, pine forests and urban restoration (particularly in the Deering Estate). For my research, I like to take a broad look at what’s in front of me in order to be able to link the application of the science to the topic – so that’s what I mainly do: applied field ecology. I prefer looking more broadly at the science because of my interest in the social sciences, mainly my fascination with history. There is a time element involved in forest management, you know? Forests change just as we do over time – going through a juvenile stage, disturbances, a mature stage, etcetera. So there’s a whole time element there and I’m interested in that whole transition, specifically regarding the management of South Florida’s restoration decisions.

What excites you most about your research? I’m currently working on a restoration project at the Deering Estate, which I’m really very excited about. This project is so multi-layered and complex and totally fascinating! It’s fascinating to see how the hardwood forest and surrounding ecosystem got to what it is today and the multiple elements involved in changing the landscape so dramatically over time – there is such history in our natural habitat that we walk by every day and don’t notice. Wetlands, plant structures, water management – all of it has an element of time to it. This particular area is a unique ecosystem, a geological marvel, that has a lot of historical layers: every South Florida ecosystem is incorporated into the area. I love exploring the layers of time that helped shape the landscape to its current form. I’m very excited to be doing a restoration project within an urban setting with a tremendous amount of history.

Michael Ross taking pictures in the field.

I’m also excited about the whole issue around projecting sea level rise. Many may not be totally aware of this, but now mangroves are invading toward the interior into fresh water marshes. In some places however, the mangroves are not going to be able to fill in fast enough and those will become lakes and open water until eventually, maybe 100 years from now, that area will look like Florida Bay. Figuring out how that’s going to happen and then identifying whether it will help to put more fresh water in the area or if it doesn’t help the problem at all – that management aspect is very important and interesting to work on. At the moment, we are working to understand exactly how this system works by looking at the mangroves invading coastal tree islands, as well as the different processes happening outside the islands. All of this is landscape ecology.

How do you think this research impacts people or the planet in a broader sense? I think bringing to light the consequences of sea level rise on native plant communities is crucial and not many people understand the challenging biodiversity implications of this issue. When you have different species, you have to learn what you are going to do with them. There are some exotic species invading the plant communities and we need to get used to that and begin figuring out how to adapt to it. The environment is constantly changing and I am really interested in the idea of restoration in a changing environment. Even though I am not in the position to explain what direction restoration should take, I think with all of the student research and the projects we are working on, we might start to figure out exactly what restoration is and how every restoration decision is different and critical in its own way.

Tell me your most memorable experience working on this topic. I’ve had two wildlife encounters while in the field. The first was in Alberta, Canada while I was taking some samples for my research. I saw a mother bear up in a tree looking at me like I was prey. Eventually, I moved around and could see the cubs coming down from the tree. That was quite the experience! I also saw for the first time a golden eagle in Utah. I was actually sprinting across a ridge trying not to get hit by lightning and it just flew right over me!

What do you do when you’re not in the lab/field? I try to be productive and keep myself busy.  I am a sports addict too, so I was super excited to watch the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl last season!

Candice Allouch contributed to this story.