• Real-World Geography: Dr. Stuart Pimm

    Real-World Geography: How people use geography and the geographic perspective in their everyday lives and real-world careers.

    Illustration by Mary Crooks

    The World According to Pimm
    Stuart is also an author of several books, including 2001s The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth. Thats sort of an assessment of what were doing to the planet, he says.

    By Stuart Thornton

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    Stuart is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is also a member of the National Geographic Society’s committee for the Big Cats Initiative.

    “We are looking for ways of trying to figure out why in particular lions and cheetahs are declining and what we can do to reverse those declines,” Stuart says of his work with National Geographic.

    EARLY WORK

    Stuart says his parents introduced him to the outdoors at an early age. “Weekends and holidays we spent hiking and camping,” he says.

    Stuart’s interest in the natural world took flight while growing up in Derbyshire, England. “Like many people, I started out as a young teenager with a passion for bird watching,” he says. “When you get involved in bird watching, you learn birds, and birds are a very obvious indicator of what’s wrong and what’s right with the world.”

    After receiving his PhD from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Stuart went to Hawaii. There, he studied the ‘i’iwi, a black and red bird native to the islands. During months in the field, Stuart began to realize a lot of bird species on the islands were disappearing. “It changed my whole worldview,” he says. “I thought we scientists better be studying why species go extinct. It’s both a scientifically interesting question, but it’s also a morally mandatory question.”

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “I feel really hugely fortunate to be doing something to keep the wonderful world that we have going. That’s what is exciting for me. I’m not just going out there and studying it in some sort of academic way. My work has a sense of mission, of purpose, and that makes it so worthwhile.”

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    When encountering disappearing species and cultures, Stuart says, it can be difficult to stay optimistic. “I think the challenge in some ways is not to get depressed,” he says.

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    “What geography means to me is this connection between people and their environment. In that sense, I think conservation biology is an essential piece of geography.”

    GEO-CONNECTION

    Stuart says mapping out lion and cheetah habitats in Africa is a big part of his work with the Big Cats Initiative. “What we are really trying to do is a couple of things at a couple of different levels,” he says. “One of them is that we are trying to map out savanna Africa.”

    Stuart and his students at Duke University are using Google Earth to locate areas that were lion and cheetah habitat before the regions were overtaken by crop fields. “We, my students and I, have produced maps of Africa that are really quite alarmingly different to what other people have produced in the past,” he says.

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . CONSERVATION ECOLOGIST

    Get outside! “If you are outdoors and you’ve seen what’s going on in your world, that gives you a huge leg up on what’s happening in the planet,” Stuart says.

    GET INVOLVED

    Volunteer for a local conservation organization. “I think almost wherever you live there are local conservation groups of one kind or another,” Stuart says. “There are local groups that care about the places people live.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    academic Adjective

    person or thing having to do with school, particularly college or university education.

    alarming Adjective

    shocking or very surprising.

    Big Cats Initiative Noun

    National Geographic Society program that supports on-the-ground conservation projects, education, economic incentive efforts, and a global public-awareness campaign to protect big cats and their habitats.

    cheetah Noun

    large, spotted cat native to Africa.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    conservation ecology Noun

    study of Earth's biodiversity, with the goal of protecting species, habitats, and ecosystems. Also called conservation biology.

    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    decline Verb

    to reduce or go down in number.

    encounter Verb

    to meet, especially unexpectedly.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    extinct Adjective

    no longer existing.

    fortunate Adjective

    lucky.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    Google Earth Noun

    computer and mobile application used to access and explore virtual globes, maps, and other geographic information.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    indicator Noun

    sign or signal.

    lion Noun

    large cat native to sub-Saharan Africa and Gir Forest National Park, India.

    mandatory Adjective

    required.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    moral Adjective

    right, just, or good.

    National Geographic Society Noun

    (1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

    optimism Noun

    positive or favorable point of view.

    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    savanna Noun

    type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.

    species Noun

    group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.

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