Deborah Lawrence

Deborah Lawrence

Fellow: Awarded 2009
Field of Study: Plant Sciences

Competition: US & Canada

University of Virginia

Associate Professor Deborah Lawrence conducts conservation-oriented ecological research in tropical forests. She currently works in southern Mexico, a global hotspot of deforestation, and northeastern Costa Rica, where reforestation is now replacing deforestation. She also worked for a decade in the rainforest margins of Indonesian Borneo. Out of college, she received a Fulbright scholarship for research in Cameroon and she was just recently awarded a Fulbright for new research in Thailand, which will enhance her planned work under the Guggenheim Fellowship. Her research focuses on how nutrient cycling is affected by deforestation and subsequent changes in land-use.

In the Yucatan, Ms. Lawrence has worked since 1998 with an interdisciplinary team including geographers, economists, remote sensing scientists, anthropologists, and hydrologists, as well as ecologists. The team approaches the tropical landscape as a coupled system with feedbacks between human decision-making and dynamics of the physical and biological systems they inhabit. She and her graduate students study how human management affects the flow of nutrients, energy, carbon, and water in the dry forests of the region. They strive to understand how forests respond to multiple stressors including human land use, water stress, and hurricanes. This approach will lead to better understanding of how human land use alters the resilience of tropical forest ecosystems to changing climatic regimes in the future. She is also studying this problem with an interdisciplinary group of scientists at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. Since 1999, she has investigated how tree species, forest age, and soil fertility influence the response of tree productivity and nutrient use efficiency to changes in climate. Her current research grew out of her work in West Kalimantan, where she reconstructed land use histories to study changes in tree diversity, landscape structure, and soil nutrients during two hundred years of shifting cultivation.

Deborah Lawrence is also involved in two international networks investigating the human and ecological dimensions of tropical deforestation. She has been part of the TROPI-DRY network, a group working in the dry forests of Mexico, Costa Rica, Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil, since 2005. In 2008, she became involved in an interdisciplinary, international effort to understand changes in shifting cultivation throughout Southeast Asia. Her Guggenheim-funded research in Thailand will complement a pan-tropical effort, spawned by the group, to understand the causes and consequences of changes in land use on forest margins.

Over the past eight years, Deborah Lawrence has involved over forty students, graduate and undergraduate, in her research, emphasizing both the intellectual stimulation and the social urgency of understanding the ecological effects of tropical land use change. Her research also reaches into her teaching—a very popular introductory course on Conservation Ecology, an upper level course on Tropical Ecology, and a graduate course on Ecosystem Effects of Land Use Change—and into her role as director of the Program in Environmental and Biological Conservation (EBC) within Environmental Science at the University of Virginia.


Photograph by Clement Tingley.

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