Interview with Christy Rollinson

head shot of christy rollinson

Dr. Christine Rollinson is the perfect example of a scientist with an atypical career. She works in the non-profit sector, as lead Forest Ecologist at The Morton Arboretum in Illinois. She grew up in the central Appalachian Mountains, received her Bachelor’s at Oberlin College of Ohio, and went on to complete her Master’s and PhD at Penn State. Finally, she did a Postdoc at Boston University.

head shot of christy rollinson
Personal photo from Christy Rollinson.

  1. How did your PhD help you move into the non-profit sector, and how does it help you at work (or not)?

My PhD program (Ecology at Penn State) placed a lot of emphasis on being interdisciplinary and being able to speak broadly not just about your particular research topic, but the discipline in general. In my job, I am constantly serving as a representative of The Morton Arboretum in formal and informal settings and having to convey not only what I do in my research, but what my colleagues in the Center for Tree Science and other departments are doing and why. I feel like my program prepared us very well to do this type of synthesis and have at least a functional understanding of other aspects of biology and ecology.

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2. When did you discover your desire to pursue a non-academic career? Was there pressure to follow a certain career path?

I was never particularly interested in pursuing a tenure-track position. I was originally interested in being a natural areas manager for a conservation-oriented group like The Nature Conservancy and got my masters before doing a PhD because most of the non-seasonal jobs I was interested required a masters. Along the way, I discovered I enjoyed research and there were still many questions that needed to be answered to do effective conservation.

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I was always up front with potential mentors about my desired career path and was fortunate to have academic advisors and mentors who were supportive of this. I have heard passing comments first-hand from some professors about people “wasting” their PhD if they weren’t doing research at an R-1 institution, which is part of why I have always been vocal that a non-academic research career was my “plan A”. I am a bit of a stubborn person by nature and do not react well to people telling me what I “should want”, so I did not pursue close associations with individuals who were not respectful of my career goals.

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That said, I always tell students to figure out what their dream job is before pursuing higher education. It’s okay to not have it all figured out, and it’s okay for your dreams to change. But I feel like having a good sense of self and what you want in life before going into higher education (undergraduate or graduate) will help you resist pressures from other people trying to make you realize their version of success, even if it it’s not what you actually want.

3. Some say that having a PhD makes you overqualified for non-academic positions. Have you ever been hindered by your degrees?

Having a PhD makes you overqualified for certain types of positions. I was fortunate to transition smoothly from my PhD to a postdoc to my dream job, but I know many who are not so lucky. I know several individuals who are constrained in the geography of their job search for personal reasons who have struggled because their degree makes them appear over-qualified. At the Arboretum, more than once a resume has been passed around to see if someone had a space for an individual because they seemed like a good fit for the institution, but overqualified for the position they applied for. Unfortunately, we do not usually have an opening or funding in the research department for these individuals.

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Again, I strongly advocate potential PhD candidates have candid conversations with those important in their life and potential mentors about their goals and career prospects. Although you learn a lot of useful and transferable skills while doing a PhD, you also become very specialized and learning how to recognize and market those skills to a different field can be difficult.

4. What are some of your responsibilities at The Morton Arboretum?

In terms of primary duties, I lead the forest ecology research at the Arboretum, which is very similar to a research professor at a university. I do not have formal teaching responsibilities or my own grad students since we are not affiliated with a university, but my main job is to ask and answer questions about how trees and forests work. Right now my work involves a combination of on-site long-term projects in our natural areas and collections, plus some tree-ring work and some computer modeling work.

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I have an RA [research assistant] that I share with our conservation geneticist that currently focuses on maintaining our permanent monitoring plots, a grant-funded volunteer coordinator that runs our citizen science phenology program, and then various students and collaborators. I typically mentor 1-2 high school students during the academic year and then 1-2 undergraduates through our summer research fellowship that is currently funded through the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program (prior to that, it was privately funded).  I also serve on graduate committees with several universities.

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Although not formally listed as job requirements, I also spend a lot of time on various forms of engagement with natural resources managers and public outreach, particularly in regards with how climate change impacts trees and forests in the Chicago region. Collectively, my team is involved with probably 10-15 events a year targeted at sharing the research we do at The Morton Arboretum with school groups, Arboretum visitors, donors and policy makers, and the general public.

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Often we use our collection of tree-ring samples from the Arboretum’s collections and trees around the area as a way to help show how weather and climate impact our trees and, as my colleague says, let people actually “touch the Dust Bowl”. I’ve started calling this “the tree-ring touch tank” and it amazes me that in 1 hour of running an outreach table at the Arboretum, we are able to interact with over a hundred people who had never heard of our research before. When I contrast this with how many people show up to a talk at an academic conference like ESA [Ecological Society of America] or AGU [American Geophysical Union], I normally have 3-5 times as many people show up at my talks for the ‘general public’ (which communication experts will tell you doesn’t exist). I think many times we (as scientists/academics/researchers) don’t give non-specialists/scientists enough credit for their curiosity and earnestness in wanting to learn more about the world around them.

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5. Your personal website describes a current project called, “Establishing a historical baseline for modern forest vulnerability in Illinois” which is managed by the Center for Tree Science at The Morton Arboretum. What do you find to be the most riveting part of your latest research?

This is a really fun aspect of my research that I’m excited about for a couple reasons. First, it’s a project that came out of conversations with regional land managers. With the Chicago Wilderness Oak Ecosystems Recovery working group that I’m a part of, I was hearing a lot of talk about restoration and ‘remnant oak ecosystems’ and about restoring forest dynamics to the pre-European colonization state. As we talked more, we came to realize that both scientists and managers didn’t have a good understanding of what those dynamics such as historic disturbance regimes and climate sensitivities were. So in addition to there being lots of fun ecological questions to be answered, there were also the kinds of direct applications and management needs that I’ve sought to help answer with my work.

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The second reason this is a lot of fun, is we get to use historical structures for ecology. Finding old trees on the landscape is really hard because most of them were removed at the time of European settlement. But when they were cut down, they didn’t disappear from the landscape. They were just transformed into timbers for buildings and so that wood and those growth rings have been preserved and are easily accessible. And people LOVE their buildings and their big trees. The frustrating part of the project is that we don’t have the capacity (=funding) to sample everything because when people hear about our work, it seems like everyone has a favorite tree or building that they want to know more about. This work has been a really amazing way of connecting people and trees through history.

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Thanks so much to Dr. Rollinson for taking the time to answer some pertinent questions about scientists in the non-profit sector! Hope you guys enjoyed her insight, and let me know which questions + answers helped you out the most. Sincerely, Jess

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