UH Hilo biologist Rebecca Ostertag elected lifetime fellow of Ecological Society of America

UH Hilo Professor of Biology Rebecca Ostertag is one of world’s leading authorities on restoration ecology. She is developing a unique hybrid restoration technique for native forests that uses native and non-native species in mixtures to keep out highly invasive species.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Rebecca Ostertag
Rebecca Ostertag. Photo by Kirsten Aoyagi/UH Hilo Stories.

A biology professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has been elected as a 2021 fellow of the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

The lifetime recognition was awarded to Rebecca Ostertag, one of world’s leading authorities on restoration ecology, for her outstanding leadership in the areas of tropical forest ecology and conservation, and a deep commitment to mentoring and enhancing diversity in the next generation of ecologists.

Kris Roney, vice chancellor for academic affairs, says Ostertag exemplifies the role of teacher-scholar, engaging and mentoring students in ecology through coursework, mentorship, and grant-funded opportunities while conducting a breadth of disciplinary research.

“Her election by the ESA is testament to the reach of her leadership in all of these areas,” says Roney. “She is an absolutely phenomenal colleague and professor, and this honor is well earned.”

Research

Professor Ostertag’s research focuses on tropical forest ecology, examining questions relating to biological invasions, nutrient cycling, forest dynamics, climate, and restoration. The work carries a strong field component and involves integration of natural history, community structure, and ecosystem dynamics.

Two researchers with sapling and bucket of soil, planting young ulu tree in forest clearing. Each wears a hard hat.
(Left to right) Becky Ostertag, reforestation researcher, and Taite Winthers-Barcelona, invasive species field associate at the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, planting ‘ulu (breadfruit tree) in research plot. Courtesy photo.

Ostertag first came to Hawai‘i during graduate school to do field work at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on Hawai‘i Island and Kōke‘e State Park on Kaua‘i. After completing her postdoctoral research with University of California-Berkeley, she decided to return to the islands. In addition to conducting research, she has been teaching at UH Hilo since 2001 and currently serves as the associate chairperson of the tropical conservation biology and environmental science (TCBES) program after having served as chair for three years.

Since moving to Hawai‘i Island, Ostertag has worked with numerous university and local organizations to expand her field knowledge. Her current research with Liko Nā Pilina Hybrid Ecosystems Project involves looking at a technique called hybrid restoration. She defines this method as “doing forest restoration with native and non-native species in mixtures to try and use that as a technique to keep out highly invasive species.”

Another part of Ostertag’s research involves her work with the Hawai‘i Permanent Plot Network (HIPPNET), which studies forest plots in Hawai‘i with specific interests in species patterns such as mortality, species growth, and how forests are influenced by the climate. The data collected is then compared to that of other scientists all over the world who are replicating the same methodology. “This will allow us to see where Hawaiian forests fit within this global network and we can learn about how our differences and similarities affect the world,” she explains.

Aerial of forest.
Above, an image from the Laupahoehoe Phenocam taken on April 23, 2021. Click on image above to learn more about the latest picture taken by the phenocam on the HIPPNET weather tower in Laupahoehoe, updated several times a day. The camera is part of a global PhenoCam network, hosted by Harvard University.

The professor says that over the years she has learned important cultural lessons through mo‘olelo (stories) as well as protocols for working in the field with indigenous plants and people. She’s also learned a lot about different working styles and different modes that people have for getting things done, which have pushed her to get out of her comfort zone and function differently. Working within a field as cooperative as science, Ostertag explains that this is important because “really, the goal is to get us working together, to collaborate, to try to make the world a better place. The more that we can understand where people are coming from, the more we can all work together toward those goals.”

Teaching and mentoring

Ostertag teaches courses related to the environment, including ecology and conservation, biostatistics, and field methods, incorporating many aspects of her current research and other local studies into her lectures and lessons. By providing examples so close to home, she hopes to help students understand the amazing island ecosystem that is at their fingertips.

Three students in forest with measuring tapes and clipboards.
Prof. Ostertag’s students collect data in the forest. Courtesy photo.

“Hawai‘i is a biological playground in terms of the diversity in environments here,” says Ostertag. “It’s such a privilege to be able to teach in this environment.”

As an ecological educator, Ostertag believes that one of her main goals is to “get people to think more broadly about how the environment is involved in their everyday lives.” Many of the concepts she covers reflect back on this priority.

However, her work doesn’t stop there. She also spends a lot of time mentoring students, helping them in other capacities relating to things like career development and volunteer work.

She is heavily involved in the Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES), an undergraduate internship program housed within the Office of Research and Community Partnerships at UH Hilo. PIPES goals are to foster a community committed to the stewardship of natural resources in the Pacific. The program matches students to host mentors to provide interns with applied learning experiences.

Further, she works closely with the Kealoha STEM scholars and Hālau ‘Ōhi’a Stewardship Training programs.

Professor Ostertag also maintains a Listserv of current and former students to help after their time under her mentorship, forwarding them job opportunities and internships relating to ecology.

“I try to keep in touch with students to let them know I’m here, that I’m willing to help them.”

 

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.