Interview with Patricia Werner, August 13, 2014

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Patricia Werner was a member of the Ecological Society of America as well as a professor at Michigan State University. In this interview, she talks about her research regarding disturbances on tree populations in the tropics of Darwin, Australia. She also discusses her work as division director for the National Science Foundation.

Interview notes

Patricia Werner grew up near Flint, Michigan and enjoyed the outdoors. She had a fantastic middle grade and high school biology teacher who was challenging, used the Socratic method of teaching, and stayed after class to interact with students who were around. Patricia went to Michigan State to get her M.S. in 1968, with an emphasis on systematics. She took a course from John Cantlon and got her Ph.D. with him there. She worked at Kellogg Biological Research Station, on John’s field plots, and developed an interest in plant demography. 

John Cantlon was interested in succession and diversity patterns at the time. William E. Cooper in Zoology there was also very influential and taught at Kellogg. John became provost at MSU during her last year.

Steve Stevensen at MSU was a plant ecologist that was helpful to her as a student there.

She worked on teasel and used it for her experiments for her M.S., including size vs age in a biennial, influenced by John Harper.

After PhD

Patricia stayed at MSU for another year, funded by the Research Applied to National Needs (RAND) program. She describes what she did as a participant in a multidisciplinary course, including modeling and student reactions. She then went to a post-doc in Iowa for a year with NSF funding, and then she and Earl Warner were hired back at MSU where she stayed until 1986 when she moved to Australia with CSIRO.


After going to Australia on sabbatical, Patricia returned to work on the effects of disturbances on tree populations in the tropics. It was a good move for her and she was able to continue her research even though she became the director.

NSF Division Director

Patricia became the NSF Division Director after John Brooks retired. Mary Clutter was her supervisor, from who she learned much about administration. NSF was not impressed with ecologists setting their priorities. The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative was encouraged by Patricia and NSF contributed, though not as much as the Mellon Foundation. Pat was able to promote ecology in NSF during the two years she was there, though it started before she arrived, and she describes how that happened through the SBI. It was important for ESA to organize its priorities and SBI might have been the first time ESA did this.

Pat also supported proof of concept workshops while at NSF with her discretionary funding. 

University of Florida

Patricia was at the University of Florida for a while as head of wildlife, though it was more administration than she wanted, and became very ill toward the end when she retired. She then went back to Australia to the Australian National University.

How have her research methods changed?

She is still doing experimental field studies (permanent plots) in northern Australia with an emphasis on the effects of natural disturbances. She liked to use the hierarchical approach for her research and considered competition as a process.

Ecology as a profession

Patricia thinks of ecology as a biological science, but the plenary sessions have shifted to global issues and less on biology per se. That’s different from what ESA meetings used to have, she says.


Meetings are important to attend and were encouraged by her mentors, to help them become professionals. Katherine (Kay) Gross was Pat’s first Ph.D. student, and Kay worked at Ohio State for a while.





Oral History Item Type Metadata


43 minutes


Patricia Werner and Dennis Knight, “Interview with Patricia Werner, August 13, 2014,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed September 21, 2023,