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Spotlight Series: Jenny Zambrano and the Most Interesting, Complex Ecosystems

Jenny Zambrano is an Assistant Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University (USA).  Her interest in forests began with family visits to Leticia, Colombia as a child, and she returned to the Colombian Amazon to conduct fieldwork as an undergraduate student. Jenny has worked in several ForestGEO plots; as a postdoc with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center Jenny conducted research at Luquillo (Puerto Rico) & Wabikon (USA) plots, and, more recently, she has worked on a project at Michigan Big Woods (USA). In her spare time Jenny enjoys birdwatching. 

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

My love for the forest started a long time ago. I spent several summers in the Colombian Amazon forest while visiting my family in Leticia. I was always mesmerized by the diversity of plants and animals and the important role that the forest plays in everyday life. It was only natural that my career as a forest ecologist started as an undergraduate by studying the effects of illegal hunting on the regeneration of primate-dispersed plants in the Colombian Amazon (photo below). As a result of this project, I became interested in understanding the effects of human activities on the long-term persistence of forests, which has been one of my main research interests.

Photo caption below.
Field work in the Amacayacu National Natural Park, Colombia. From left to right: Mamerto del Aguila (Mocagua Community), Andrea Barrera (ABC Colombia), Jenny Zambrano, Francisco del Aguila (Mocagua Community) and Maria Jose La Rota (Autonomous University of Barcelona).

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 love research and being able to pursue important ecological questions. In addition, during my PhD and postdoc, I really enjoyed mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. Academia offers a great opportunity to combine both, therefore, I decided to apply to a tenure-track position that would allow me to continue my research while mentoring the future generation. My main challenge so far has been to fight against the impostor syndrome. It has not always been easy to be part of a field that for a long time has been biased against underrepresented groups. I was very fortunate to find mentors to help me embrace the feeling of been an outsider, as I can reach out to people that feel they do not belong in this field.

When did you first get involved in the ForestGEO network?

I first became involved with the ForestGEO network in 2016 while I was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center. My mentor, Nathan Swenson, introduced me to the invaluable data set and networking opportunities that ForestGEO offers. My work has included data from the Luquillo Forest Dynamics Plot (Zambrano et al 2019, 2020) and the Wabikon Forest Dynamics Plot (Zambrano et al 2017). In 2018, in collaboration with Natalia Umaña (Assistant Professor, University of Michigan), I started a project to study tree demographic responses to soil fertility by looking at leaf and root traits at the Michigan Big Woods Forest Dynamics Plot.

This video by Hans Reijnen highlights Natalia and Jenny’s work at the Michigan Big Woods plot.

This project was funded by a ForestGEO Research Grant, and we are currently working on the papers associated with this study. In addition, in 2017, I had the opportunity to participate in the ForestGEO annual workshop held in Puerto Rico. This experience was very gratifying; not only was I able to meet people involved in the creation and functioning of this network, it also opened my eyes to the diversity of the network. Aside from being a great resource to study forest systems, ForestGEO is a combination of people from different ethnicities and backgrounds making this network so welcoming. 

The team works at the Big Woods Plot, Michigan. From left to right: Xiaomao Wang (Master student at the SEAS, UM),
Natalia Umaña, ​​​ Jenny Zambrano, and Vincent Battista (PhD student in the department of Anthropology UM).

What questions are you currently addressing in your research/site?

My primary research interest is to understand the processes that determine forest structure and composition. My work addresses fundamental questions in forest ecology by testing and integrating ecological theory at different organizational and spatial scales to better understand and predict the long-term viability of forest systems. My research integrates field studies, data synthesis, and statistical modeling with the purpose of understanding the mechanisms that underlie population and community dynamics. I am interested in applying this understanding to questions regarding the ways in which forests are responding to changing environments, especially in the context of forest fragmentation (Zambrano et al 2019, 2020). Currently, I am interested in using an evolutionary approach to better understand present morphological and physiological trait diversity that will determine species responses to changing environments.

What is your favorite part about your work?

I get to work with the most interesting and yet complex ecosystems. Forests provide key ecosystem services and are indispensable for the well-being of human societies. Yet, we tend to forget the important role that forests play in our lives. With my work, I am able to remind people of the importance of these ecosystems and the effects that human activities may have on these systems. In addition, my work has allowed me to better understand the complexity of forest systems, something that has always fascinated me and originated from my travels to the Amazon. In addition, my work has allowed me to connect with people from diverse backgrounds giving me a different perspective on complex relationship between forest ecosystems and human society. While conducting my research in the Amazon, I learned that to achieve more sustainable ways of preserving the forest, we need to closely work with local communities and acknowledge traditional practices and beliefs.

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

The pandemic has forced us all to explore different activities to cope with the current situation. In my case, I got into birdwatching and have been discovering the birds from the US Pacific Northwest. I found Cedar Waxwings fascinating with their stylish mask and crest and their beautiful coloration! I am hoping to join local groups to learn more about the birds from the Palouse region. In addition, I love to discover new places and learn about different cultures allowing me to gain a new perspective about life.

Web Presence

Zambrano Lab website | Twitter

Select Publications

Zambrano, J., Beckman, N.G., Marchand, P., Thompson, J., Uriarte, M., Zimmerman, J.K., Umaña, M.N., & Swenson, N.G.  2020.  The scale dependency of trait-based tree neighborhood models.  Journal of Vegetation Science, 31(4): 581-593.  DOI: 10.1111/jvs.12880.

Zambrano, J., Cordeiro, N., Garzon-Lopez, C., Yeager, L., Fortunel, C., Ndangalasi, H.J., & Beckman, N.G.  Investigating the direct and indirect effects of forest fragmentation on plant functional diversity.  PLoS ONE, 15(7): e0235210. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0235210.

Zambrano, J., Fagan, W.F., Worthy, S.J., Thompson, J., Uriarte, M., Zimmerman, J.K., Umaña, M.N., & Swenson, N.G.  2019.  Tree crown overlap improves predictions of the functional neighbourhood effects on tree survival and growth.  Journal of Ecology, 107(2): 887-900.  DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.13075.

Zambrano, J., Garzon-Lopez, C.X., Yeager, L., Fortunel, C., Cordeiro, N.J., & Beckman, N.  The effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on plant functional traits and functional diversity: what do we know so far?  2019.  Oecologia, 191: 505-518.  DOI: 10.1007/s00442-019-04505-x

Zambrano, J., Iida, Y., Howe, R, Lin, L., Umaña, M.N., Wolf, A., Worthy, S.J., & Swenson, N.G.  2017.  Neighbourhood defence gene similiarity effects on tree performance: a community transcriptomic approach.  Journal of Ecology, 616-626.  DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12765.