Meet 'Shotgun Scientist' Angie Patterson, GSAS’21, An Expert on How Trees Are Responding to Climate Change
Angelica “Angie” Patterson grew up in the Poconos, but her love of trees and the outdoors came much later.
“You hear stories of families taking camping trips and going on hikes or visiting national parks,” she said. “That wasn’t my story. We were more of a theme parks family.”
She went to Cornell University to become a veterinarian, but left as a conservation biologist. Continuing on to Columbia for her PhD, she studied the flux of trees in and out of the New York's Hudson Valley in response to climate change. Now the master science educator at Black Rock Forest, an hour's drive north of New York City, and where she did her fieldwork, Patterson connects the forest to kids, adults, and researchers like herself.
Out of the woods, she celebrates her experiences on Twitter, through discussions tagged #BlackInNature and #BlackinSTEM, among other topics. We caught up with her to talk about migrating trees, life as a Black woman scientist, and how the environmental sciences could be more welcoming to women and people of color.
How do trees move?
Good question. They can’t pick up their bags like humans because they don’t have legs so their basic mechanism is to migrate via their seeds—through wind, water, gravity, and even animals, including humans, who transport seeds from one place to another.
Black Rock Forest was the focus of your PhD. How has it changed?
Over the past 90 years, different tree species have moved in and out. Three tree species have become locally extinct, and 11 species have migrated in. Those migrating out have a predominantly northern range, while the ones migrating in have come from the south. I was interested in the physiological mechanism driving their migration and how the changing forest composition will influence carbon storage. Over three years, I sampled the trees and leaves at Black Rock Forest to measure their capacity to take in carbon from the atmosphere to grow and reproduce.
What did you learn?
Central-range trees have a lower capacity to absorb carbon than their northern and southern counterparts. That’s important because the northern red oak at Black Rock Forest is a central-range tree that makes up two-thirds of the forest. Red oaks are at a physiological disadvantage compared to southern trees, and that could have a big impact on carbon storage in our region.
Trees have been moving since the last ice age ended. Why is that a problem now?
A. Climate is changing so rapidly that trees are having a hard time chasing their preferred climate. They’re known to migrate at about three kilometers per year, but may need to migrate up to 10 times faster to keep pace with climate change. It matters because the types of trees that survive in a given place will influence how much carbon storage potential a region has.
[Trees are] known to migrate at about three kilometers per year, but may need to migrate up to 10 times faster to keep pace with climate change.
You helped start the #BlackinNature Twitter campaign in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered and a woman called the NYPD on a birdwatcher named Christian Cooper. What’s your message?
We wanted to bring awareness to Black experiences in nature. For most of American history, Black and Brown people couldn’t just go anywhere without being harassed or hurt. The outdoors was dangerous, and that may be why you don’t see many people of color in the environmental sciences. But it’s not to say that we’re not there! For most of us, nature is ingrained in our roots. It’s ingrained in our histories and our lived experiences. The hashtag “Black in Nature” is there to amplify that.
How did you get interested in science?
I was interested in science for a long time and was driven to apply to Cornell because it has one of the best veterinary schools in the nation. But when I got there, I found there was something else for me. As a first-generation college student, I took way too many courses than I should have that first semester. To recover, I took a conservation biology class and the world opened up to me. I was like "Oh, I don’t have to be a vet to understand animals. I can study the environment and understand hot topics in climate change science."
Our basic curriculum is not diverse, so when you don’t see a person of color, you question yourself. Why am I here? That all needs to change to really make a difference.
How did you get the nickname ‘Shotgun Scientist’?
A. One of the prompts for #BlackBotanistsWeek was to tell everyone about your research. So, I used a picture of me firing a shotgun into the forest canopy. That got a lot of attention, and I thought it was a great way to spark curiosity about my work. After that, I got several interview requests. One was from a journalist at The Guardian who wrote a feature about tree migration and climate change. She came up with this beautiful headline—“The Shotgun Scientist”—and that kind of became my brand.
How is the shotgun useful for, say, a plant ecophysiologist?
A. It’s an effective tool for sampling tree branches at the top of the canopy. It’s also cheap. In the tropics you have to build scaffolding because it’s virtually impossible to reach the top. You can also climb trees. People do that. I don’t! You can use a slingshot. I experimented with that for a little bit. It was a six-foot slingshot with a beanbag at one end. You crouch down and catapult this beanbag with a line saw attached to it over a branch, and then you saw it down. My aim was better with a shotgun. Now they have drones that can go right to the top of a tree and cut branches off. The technology most accessible to me was the shotgun.
How can the field be more welcoming to women and people of color?
A. There’s no single fix. Opportunities need to be visible and transparent. Mentoring guidance needs to be there. The culture of an institution, organization, or company needs to be nurturing and inclusive. It can’t be toxic! Our cultural differences also need to be acknowledged. We’re often taught that one group made the discoveries and led the expeditions. Our basic curriculum is not diverse, so when you don’t see a person of color, you question yourself. Why am I here? That all needs to change to really make a difference.
Have you had any role models?
Growing up I didn’t see many scientists that looked like me, maybe one or two on television. Neil deGrasse Tyson was one, and I was like "Wow, that’s so cool!" But in plant physiology or the earth sciences I can’t recall one woman of color. And so, I draw inspiration from Twitter: #BlackInNature, #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackinSTEM, and #BlackBotanistsWeek. I’m able to see peers that are doing amazing things, and who inspire me every day.
Feeling honored for the chance to share my experiences as a Black #SCIENTIST as part of @Columbia's feature on women scientists for #WomensHistoryMonth Can't wait to share the footage with all of you! #DreamBig #BlackinNature #BlackinSTEM #BlackBotanistsWeek pic.twitter.com/aSCx0iGZPe— Dr. Angelica Patterson (@ColorfulSciGirl) March 24, 2022
Advice for aspiring ecologists?
A. Dream big. Don’t let anyone say no, that’s impossible, or you can’t do it, because you can! I have failed classes academically. I have worked in jobs that are not in science. I never had a formal internship in high school. But I was still able to get to where I am today. Just dream big and don’t let anyone discourage you.
Do you have a favorite tree?
A. The northern red oak is amazing. It’s resistant to fire, and able to out-compete a lot of fire-sensitive species. It can survive harsh winter conditions. Oak wood is hearty—that’s why it’s made into furniture. It’s a brilliant, resilient tree.