Interview with Stuart Chapin III, July 1, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Stuart "Terry" Chapin III was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 2010-2011, and has taught at both the University of Alaska and the University of California, Berkley. In his interview, he talks about his work with the Peace Corps and his various research studies in arctic and alpine ecology. He also discusses the involvement of the ESA in policy formation and in providing solutions to human ecological impacts.

Interview notes

Terry was born in Portland, OR, and his family moved to Washington, DC and then North Carolina.  He had no idea he was interested in ecology while growing up, but his family did outdoor activities and he enjoyed it.  He never took a course in biology or ecology until college at Swarthmore, but he really liked biology.  He took ecology from Bob Enders and Bill Dennison. The seminar course in plant ecology sparked his interest when he did a paper on arctic and alpine ecology. Papers of Hal Mooney and Dwight Billings were influential while in college because they were mechanistic in their approach. Also while he was an undergraduate, Terry took a trip with Dennison to Costa Rica and he spent a summer at the Rocky Mountain Biology Lab in Colorado. He liked "science in the field."

Milestones in his career

Terry applied to grad school and the Peace Corps with his wife Mimi. He opted for the Peace Corps because he wanted to do something different. He didn’t feel as though he was enough of an extrovert to be a good teacher. He taught biology to high school students in Columbia. While in Bogota, Columbia with the Peace Corps, he deepended his commitment to social issues, exploring other cultures, and he learned to teach in a way that was less memorization and more about how to think logically. And that’s been his approach ever since, figuring out how things work. That was a guiding principle for his ecosystem ecology textbook. 

At Swarthmore, he had participated in Civil Rights demonstrations in 1963. He was distressed about segregation and he marched to desegregate restaurants, etc. He participated in a sit-in in a restaurant in Chapel Hill and was arrested and put in jail. He did the same in Pennsylvania. Later, he was involved from time to time with social issues. After the Peace Corps, he was a conscientious objector and went back and forth with his draft board in North Carolina about that.

Later he worked some with inequities with Alaskan natives.  He also later became involved with ESA’s SEEDS program and he included undergrads in his lab at Alaska.  SEEDS was “incredibly successful.” 

Vision after the Peace Corps

Terry never had a grand vision at the beginning, but things just happened. He reconnected with Mooney and Billings when Hal Mooney and Peter Raven passed through Bogata on their way to Chili. Terry then went to Stanford to work on his Ph.D. with Mooney.

What were you excited about while a graduate student?

Arctic and alpine ecology intrigued Terry the most, but Mooney was shifting to chaparral, in which Terry was not at all interested. Terry obtained funding for studying the Alaskan Pipeline which was being built at the time. Hal Mooney was very helpful.

Terry worked with Gus Shaver, who also was at Stanford in Hal’s lab as an M.S. student, but Gus then went on to work with Billings at Duke for his Ph.D. Gus helped Terry with sedge populations in Alaska which were needed for growth chamber studies. 

The bulldozer

Terry had two thesis projects: comparing sedges and Phosphorus absorption along a latitudinal gradient and restoration along the pipeline. One of his research sites was set up originally by Larry Bliss, north of Fairbanks. He asked a bulldozer operator to blade a strip for his study, which he got into trouble. He describes the outcome of his dissertation.  Hal was always “constructively critical.”  Hal gave his students a lot of latitude, but was helpful, and Terry tried to be essentially the same.

Terry mentored about 30 Ph.D. students and about 10 M.S. students during his career.

After his Ph.D., Terry was excited about plant physiological adaptation (photosynthesis, respiration, carbon balance), but he was thinking more about nutrients in relation to temperature. He talked to Epstein at UC-Davis. He worked at Point Barrow for a while as part of the IBP tundra ecosystem program, where Larry Tieszen and Phil Miller were important mentors. Rate limiting process was microbial mineralization, so he began to think more about ecosystem processes.

While a grad student, he was at the University of Alaska around half of the time. He got to know the administration there and they offered him an assistant professor position in 1973. Terry went to UC-Berkeley after a while for around ten year, and then returned to Alaska.

Terry worked with more ecosystem processes and human impacts, and ultimately thinking about solutions. Originally, he wasn’t concerned about solving worldly environmental problems, but in early 1990s he became more concerned about human impacts. He couldn’t just work on pristine places.

What has been your most important contribution

Mentoring students, with whom he became good friends, and he learned as much from them as he was able to teach.

Contributions on the mineral nutrition of wild plants

Jill thought the work Terry did while on a Guggenheim was an important contribution. He took a sabbatical at Oxford. He wanted to know about how plants were adapted to low nutrient availability. His wife, Mimi, was a very important collaborator, reviewer, and critic.  And he got an important paper from that.  He did more on phosphorus chemistry of plants and also looked at role of plant hormones. He mentioned mycorrhizae and symbiosis for nitrogen.

Plant trait research

Plant trait research was a logical extension of his plant growth rate research and helped with understanding patterns of evolution.

Why work in the Alaskan tundra

There is relatively simplicity of the flora, perhaps, with plant grouping together in clusters which relate to growth rate, woodiness, etc. He was overwhelmed by the complexity of tropical ecology and is very impressed with the work done by Peter Vitousek.

Personal side of his career

Mimi and Terry went into the Peace Corps and went to Stanford, both as a “joint decision.” They also did field work together. Mimi was not shy about asking difficult questions when Terry didn't explain things clearly. She is a great editor and illustrator, and their desks are six feet apart.

Raising a family

They took babies to the field, with lots of camping.  “Blueberries are a great baby sitter.” They built their own house, their lives, and their careers together.

Was it a difficult decision to leave Alaska for UC-Berkeley and then return?

Their two sons, Keith and Mark, went to school in Alaska, where schools were well-funded due to the pipelines. He wanted a new academic setting for 10 years, but by that time they were not happy living in a “super urban environment.”

How has ecology changed over the years?

Right now, Terry is most excited about how ecology has expanded into thinking about human-caused drivers of ecosystem change, which is the best framework for finding solutions. He is glad about the development of the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative.

Development of ESA

Terry is proud that ESA, under
the leadership of past presidents like Lubchenco, Mooney, and Mellilo, has shifted more to thinking about a sustainable biosphere. He mentioned The Nature Conservancy (TNC) splitting off from ESA, which created a split within the membership. The newer Ecosystem Stewardship Initiative has been motivated by being proactively involved with sustainability, in a way bringing ESA back to its early years. He was concerned that this initiative would be viewed as diverting ESA from what ecologists should be doing, but there seems to have been a lot of enthusiasm for it among the people that he’s talked to.

Potential role of ESA

ESA is a
place to share ideas and it's been the primary role, and an important one, but ESA’s role could be broader than that by focusing more on world problems. He mentioned again the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative and getting people involved with understanding how ecosystems work. ESA now has to be a leader in developing understanding of the interdependencies of social ecological systems. He hopes that ESA will broaden so that ecology is not just studying pristine systems.

He’s also concerned that many advances have been stymied by political polarization because there is some skepticism about science in general.  But ecologists should ask how we can communicate better with people of this persuasion. They need to explore all avenues of communication, working with the faith community and find a better way to have that dialogue. There needs to be a respectful dialogue with a broader segment of society.

He’s been doing this in Alaska, especially with regard to Indigenous communities. Their backs are against the wall economically, but they choose to live on the land the way they do. Terry has been interested in what they envision for the future. Terry has learned that scientists often go to the Arctic already decided on what they want to do, but now he’s searching for involving native communities in the establishment of research priorities. He has a program underway to do this so that the communities can be self-reliant in a sustainable way in the future. But the native communities have identified some priorities and now the academicians are responding with pertinent research, like using more solar and wind power in the future and less diesel. Each of four communities had a different set of issues important to them.

When asked about what he was thinking of doing during his retirement, Terry said that he decided to retire so that he could work more on social ecological systems.





Oral History Item Type Metadata


76 minutes


Stuart Chapin III and Jill Johnstone, “Interview with Stuart Chapin III, July 1, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed July 14, 2024,