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A Childhood Love for Plants Becomes a Career in Wetland Science

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On September 12, 2015, in Lafayette, Louisiana, Beth Middleton, a botanist and research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), stood in the bright spotlight on a darkened stage to share her experiences as a wetland biologist and her observations of climate change.

Invited by the TEDxVermilionStreet coordinators, she emphasized to the audience that there are ways to decrease climate change impacts both on an ecological and a personal level (see “Conservation Oblivion | Beth Middleton | TEDxVermilionStreet”).

“This is daunting,” Middleton said to the TEDx audience. “But humans are good complex problem solvers.”

Beth Middleton in China
Above: Beth Middleton in China. [larger version]

Public speaking is one of Middleton’s fortes. After teaching at the University of Southern Illinois for 12 years, she grew to be comfortable standing in front of an audience. But after years of scientific presentations and her current role as a member of the faculty of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the TEDx format was a bit different.

“The scientist in me wants to say, ‘This is about climate change, not me,’ but the TED format wants you to say, ‘This is about me and why I think climate change is important,’” said Middleton. “The [audience] may not care about climate change, so I told them why I care about it. People attend these talks to be inspired, and they want to trust you, the speaker. They don’t want to know why you think what you do, but instead, just that you think it’s important.”

Another thing that Middleton thinks is important, according to her TEDx talk, is the connection people have to the natural world.

“At some point everyone has a flower they love, or a nature spot they love, some tie to the land, but then they left it there in the past,” she said.

Growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, immersed in nature, Middleton grew to love the grasses, flowers, and trees that surrounded her home. Her mother gardened; in fact, most of their family’s food came from the garden. But even still, her parents didn’t quite understand the fascination with plants, according to Middleton.

“They just let me be,” she said.

As she grew up, her love for plants flourished.

“In junior high, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a botanist, and I don’t think anyone realized up until that point that you could make a living studying plants,” said Middleton. “But it’s the only thing I ever considered doing.”

Years later, Middleton continues her plant fascination by researching climate change and its effects on swamps, including baldcypress swamps, monsoonal wetlands, mangrove swamps, northern peatlands, prairie fens, and floodplain wetlands. With the USGS she was able to develop a research network in baldcypress swamps—the North American Baldcypress Swamp Network—that invites other researchers to work in these study sites to examine the long-term function of and climate change effects on some of the most pristine swamps in the southeastern United States.

Middleton’s work also delves into the effects of hurricanes on coastal wetlands, flood pulsing in restoration sites, and biodiversity loss in fens around the world. She is interested in hydrology and water changes and projecting these changes into the future. Her work has spanned from India where she conducted both her PhD dissertation and USGS research (see “Responses to water depth and clipping of twenty-three plant species in an Indian monsoonal wetland”), to China where she was awarded a visiting professorship (see “Restoration Potential of Sedge Meadows in Hand-Cultivated Soybean Fields in Northeastern China”), and throughout the United States (see “Use of sediment amendments to rehabilitate sinking coastal swamp forests in Louisiana”).

“But no matter what I study, climate change always becomes part of the discussion,” said Middleton.

Recently, Middleton was tawarded a Sigma Xi Distinguished Lectureship from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2018, for which she will present up to five lectures a year to university audiences around the world.

For more information on Middleton’s research, visit https://profile.usgs.gov/middletonb.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Climate Past, Climate Future: A Story of Aquatic Plants
August 2009
USGS Wetland Ecologist Named Fulbright Senior Specialist
March 2006

Related Websites
Conservation Oblivion | Beth Middleton | TEDxVermilionStreet
Responses to water depth and clipping of twenty-three plant species in an Indian monsoonal wetland
Aquatic Botany
Restoration Potential of Sedge Meadows in Hand-Cultivated Soybean Fields in Northeastern China
Restoration Ecology
Use of sediment amendments to rehabilitate sinking coastal swamp forests in Louisiana
Ecological Engineering
Beth Middleton

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in this issue:

Mystery Solved: Seafloor Mapping Reveals Cause of 1964 Alaskan Tsunami

Local Research with Global Effects: Coastal Scientists Study El Niño in California

Second Phase of Photo and Video Portal Completed

"Atlantic Canyons" Interagency Study Team Receives Excellence Award

USGS Scientist Takes Intl. Atomic Energy Agency Post in Monaco

A Childhood Love for Plants Becomes a Career in Wetland Science

New Map Series Shows Geology of the Seabed off Boston, Massachusetts

Feb. / Mar. Publications

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