USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station

Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
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Meet Susan Cordell, research ecologist

A photo of Susan Cordell standing next to a large koa in the Laupahoehoe Experimental Forest.
Susan Cordell, U.S. Forest Service

Another day in paradise? Susan Cordell hopes so!

Susan is a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, based in Hilo, Hawaii. Her research is helping develop strategies to preserve tropical ecosystems from invasive species, which could change the fabled ecology of Hawaii and other islands like it forever.

  • What do you do for the Pacific Southwest Research Station?

    I carry out research based on my expertise in plant ecophysiology. Ecophysiology looks at the structure and functions of plants to better understand their tolerance to change and their ability to adapt in new locations or situations.

    When people think about Hawaii, they usually think about lush tropical rainforests. And we definitely have those here, but I do a lot of my research in tropical dry forests, which are some of the rarest, most specialized ecosystems in the world.

    Tropical dry forests are facing insurmountable threats from a lot of invasive plants, particularly grasses brought in from various parts of the world. It might sound strange to think of grass as a threat, but here it is. Not only do they crowd out native plants, but these grasses are very flammable, so they've now brought wildfire into an ecosystem that wasn't designed to be burned. With every fire, more native plants are destroyed, and they're replaced by these fire-adapted intruders.

  • Is it only tropical dry forests that are at risk?

    No, the lowland wet tropical rainforests also have their problems. The lowland areas of the islands are very desirable for human development. And with development comes lots and lots of humans, who can potentially introduce new plant and animal species into an environment.

    So similarly to what I'm doing with dry forests, I'm working with collaborative researchers from other agencies and institutions to figure out the attributes native plants have to help them survive these new challenges, while also figuring out ways to combat invasive species, or employ as allies with other non-native (but non-invasive) species that actually work to the advantage of native species.

  • Can you talk a little bit more about this strategy of using "helpful" non-native plants?

    It's sort of a strategy that's come out of necessity. We've tried removing invasive species in hopes that native plants would come back, but the invasives would just come back faster, and we weren't gaining much traction. Through our research, though, we identified certain non-native species that could out-compete the invasives, yet they still "played nice" or cohabitated well with the native plants. Combining beneficial non-native plants to support or sustain native plants is called a "hybrid ecosystem." We have given this project a Hawaiian name Liko Na Pilina - which essentially means "new relationships."

    Putting it all together is kind of like choosing a fantasy football team. You're picking different plants for different reasons or because they have different attributes or skills that you want to capitalize on. This plant grows quickly. That plant can survive well in a shaded environment. This plant produces flowers that attract and sustain native pollinators.

    This project is just in its infancy, but we're hoping to see if these new systems are resistant to invasive species. Do they facilitate native regeneration? It's been a really fun project to work on.

  • What do you enjoy most about your work?

    One of the most satisfying things is going out in the field and planting trees because this is going to impact generations to come. When I first started my career with the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, I had a colleague who said he had planted more than 1 million trees in his career, and I remember thinking "Wow! What a great legacy."

    I also love all the different groups and partners I get to work with as a daily part of my job. So many great people with great ideas. This job has allowed me to make some wonderful friends and work on some amazing projects.

    I also really enjoy all the young people I encounter as part of my work. Their energy and passion really inspire me, and I hope our work inspires them to keep our efforts going.

  • Who has inspired you in your career?

    One of my main inspirations early on in my science career came from my Ph.D. advisor. I didn't come from a strong academic background or grow up with any scientific role models. When I entered graduate school, I didn't have a lot of confidence and felt really insecure about my abilities.

    This advisor, though, believed in me and taught me how to believe in myself. He showed me that even though science and research is hard work, there's also a lot of fun and joy in research, and that I could do it. That's what inspired me to continue on to get a Ph.D. in this field.

    I also have to give credit to my first boss at the Institute, Jack Ewel. He was a tough boss, but you could still tell that he cared. He had high standards which he held himself to and expected great things from others as well. He also maintained this really strong sense of service and the responsibility that came with being a federal employee and public servant. He inspired me in all those aspects.

  • What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another field in science?

    You have to work hard. It's good to have passion, and it's good to have education and training, but it really all comes down to being able to push through the hard times and put the sweat behind what you believe.

    There's a lot to be said about keeping your mind open to opportunities, asking questions and exploring unexpected paths. People sometime think that as a scientist, you need to have every facet of your career planned out. Life doesn't work that way. You're going to have plans derailed or you'll drift off course, and that's OK. You need to be brave and walk through those unexpected doors when they open. If you work hard and ask questions, you'll end up somewhere that's right for you.

Last Modified: Mar 10, 2017 12:28:59 PM