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Spotlight Series: Amanda Uowolo & the Ultimate Metric of Accomplishment

Amanda Uowolo is an ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry.  She is a co-PI of the Ngardok, Palau FDP who first got her start with ForestGEO at the Laupahoehoe and Palamanui (both Hawai’i, USA) FDPs.  She is committed to capacity building and community engagement, and in her free time she enjoys outrigger canoe paddling and flower lei making. 

When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist/work in forest ecology? How did you decide to go down this career path?

I worked as an undergraduate horticultural research assistant in a shared lab where there were forest ecologists working on forest decline topics, and I was intrigued by their “fancy” plant physiology equipment and the research questions they were addressing. I ended up becoming a research assistant for them, as well, and began working in forest canopy towers to collect a broad range of field data, and then I was hooked. I ended up pursuing my graduate studies with one of the project leaders. Funny enough, I still use the same “fancy” equipment 25 years later in our plant functional trait research as an ecologist with the USDA Forest Service. In addition to the amazing group of forest ecologists I worked with, I now realize that I also owe a big thank you to the manufacturers of the “fancy” equipment (LI-COR Biosciences, PMS Instrument Company, and Campbell Scientific) for also inspiring me to become an ecologist!

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Amanda Uowolo

What led you down the path to your current job? What has been your biggest challenge in getting to this point in your career?

I began my career with the USDA Forest Service, Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry 20 years ago, straight out of graduate school from Colorado State University. Having supportive mentors and supervisors who invested in my scientific and leadership capacities has really made a huge difference in my career progression. Much of my early career was field-based, which provided me practical and hands-on experience with the complex factors that are at play in forests.  As valuable as this was, however, it was also a challenge for me as a mother of two young boys, as I was often extremely tired when I came home from work.

The latter part of my career has involved a lot of international travel in the Pacific, and while this has been the most rewarding and fulfilling part of my career, it has also taken me away from my family and personal life for extended periods. Luckily, my family has been very supportive of and adaptive to my time away from home to do my research. My work across the Pacific has exposed me to a broader range of forest types, plant communities, and functional traits than those found in Hawai’i, which has been truly invaluable in my understanding of forest dynamics. It has also provided me an opportunity to learn how different human communities engage with their forest resources, and, for small island environments, this is a critical consideration.  

When did you first get involved in the ForestGEO network?

Our research group at the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry is involved in three ForestGEO plots: two in Hawai’i (Laupahoehoe and Palamanui) and one in Palau (Ngardok). I have supported the two Hawai’i plots for about eight years with logistics, hiring, and training, and this is where I learned the ins and outs of “How to ForestGEO.” When we decided to pursue a ForestGEO plot in Palau, I was involved in all aspects from the very beginning and continue to manage our work in the plot today.

What is the most interesting or unique aspect of your site?

While other types of forest monitoring work have been done in Palau, nothing has been done at this scale (4 hectares), or at this fine a resolution over time, which makes forest baseline information, species growth rates, survivorship, and mortality dynamics data both singular and high quality. The Ngardok forest dynamics plot captures a wide range of “recovery from disturbance” conditions spanning from heavily degraded tropical savanna, to recovering secondary forest, to pockets of mature and potentially old-growth trees within the plot. Even though the area has a wide range of recovery from disturbance conditions, the vast majority of the forest trees of the area (>97%) is native to Palau, and many of these species are endemic to Palau and the region. Only a single invasive sapling was documented within the plot, which is in strong contrast to the highly invaded forests of some other Pacific Islands, such as Hawai’i.

Green leaves, as seen from look up towards the canopy.
Osmoxylon ngardokense in the Ngardok, Palau FDP.  This tree species was discovered due to work in the plot. 
Photo credit: Amanda Uowolo, USDA Forest Service.

What questions are you currently addressing at your site?

Because the Ngardok Forest Dynamics Plot includes a wide range of “recovery from disturbance” conditions, it will help fill a very important gap in our understanding of tropical forests recovering from human disturbance. We will be conducting our first five-year remeasurement of the plot in 2022.

A landscape view of dense, tropical forest.
Ngardok, Palau FDP.  Photo Credit: Amanda Uowolo, USDA Forest Service

What kind of capacity building opportunities does your site provide for students, early-career researchers, and the local community?

Prior to the Ngardok plot establishment, we brought four natural resource professionals from Palau to train with our forest dynamics monitoring crew and project leaders in Hawai’i to increase capacity and provide for knowledge exchange between the Hawai’i crew and the future Palau crew. Half of this team from Palau worked for the national forestry program of Palau, and half were from the local community (Melekeok) and protected area reserve where the plot is located. Since this time, we trained an additional two early career natural resource professionals from Melekeok in Hawai’i to continue capacity building opportunities for our local partners. We have also provided other types of training in Guam for the reserve staff, including arboriculture certification training, greenhouse training, and techniques for implementing green shaded fuel breaks to help address wildfire threats to the reserve. Because our research team is also involved in two other ForestGEO plots in Hawai’i, we have also used the Hawai’i plots as an opportunity to increase forest monitoring capacity across the Micronesian region through training and internships for five recent college graduates from Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The Ngardok plot is regularly used for field trips with the local community, as well as local middle schools and high schools, to see how forest monitoring work is done and learn about the forest dynamics data we produce. A small citizen science forest monitoring plot was established outside of the actual forest dynamics plot where students collect forest monitoring data themselves using the ForestGEO methods. Our plot is relatively new to the network (2018), but the baseline tree data has already been used by an early-career post-doctoral researcher and larger team to address terrestrial and epiphytic orchid dynamics.

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A field crew member takes a measurement during Ngardok’s inaugural census.  Photo credit: Amanda Uowolo, USDA Forest Service

What is your favorite part about your work?

I really enjoy mentoring interns in our research program and connecting with people in the local community on forest issues that are important to them. Supporting interns’ success and facilitating what they need for progression in their careers provides me great satisfaction in my work. Having the local community not only be supportive of our research, but also engaged in the work is my ultimate metric of accomplishment.

Yubee Isaac, a Palauan intern at the Laupahoehoe and Palamanui (Hawai’i, USA) FDPs, narrated and produced this video.  It centers the Palauan values of respect (“omengull”), reciprocity, and acknowledgment of the essence of the forest (“chengal”) as it advocates for wildfire awareness and prevention on the island of Palau.  Many of the forest images in the video were taken at the Ngardok FDP.

What do you like to do when you’re not studying forest dynamics? 

I am involved in a diverse research program at the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, and in addition to forest monitoring, I also provide technical assistance to our Pacific Island partners and am involved in restoration projects of degraded areas, activities to raise awareness about the impacts of wildfires in Micronesia, and the promotion of agroforestry in the Micronesian region to improve local food security.  

In my personal time I enjoy outrigger canoe paddling and competition, flower lei making, and producing homegrown food in my garden.

Related Websites

USDA FS Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry on the ForestGEO plot in Palau | Staff Profile

Selected Publications

Davies, S.J., Abiem, I., Abu Salim, K.,…Uowolo, A.,…et al.  (2021).  ForestGEO: Understanding forest diversity and dynamics through a global observatory network.  Biological Conservation 253, 108907.

Zhong, Y., Chu, C., Myers, J.A.,…Uowolo, A.,… et al. (2021).  Arbuscular mycorrhizal trees influence the latitudinal beta-diversity gradient of tree communities in forests worldwide. Nature Communications 12, 3137.

Ostertag, R., Sebastián-González, E., Peck, R., Hall, T., Kim, J., DiManno, N., Rayome, D., Cordell, S., Banko, P., Uowolo, A. (2020). Linking plant and animal functional diversity with an experimental community restoration in a Hawaiian lowland wet forest. Food Webs 25: e00171.

Cordell, S., Questad, E.J., Asner, G.P., Kinney, K.M., Thaxton, J.M., Uowolo, A., Brooks, S., Chynoweth, M.W. (2016). Remote sensing for restoration planning: how the big picture can inform stakeholders. Restoration Ecology 25(2), S147-S154

Hughes, R.F., Uowolo, A.L., Togia, T.P. (2012). Recovery of native forest after removal of an invasive tree, Falcataria moluccana, in American Samoa. Biological Invasions 14,1393–1413.

Asner, G.P., Hughes, R F., Mascaro, J., Uowolo, A.L, Knapp, D.E, Jacobson, J., Kennedy-Bowdoin, T., Clark, J.K. (2011). High-resolution carbon mapping on the million-hectare Island of Hawaii. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 9(8): 434-439.