Sharon Billings, a 1991 graduate of the University Honors Program, grew up with a passion for New England winters and political philosophy, making her a natural fit at the University of New Hampshire. While in the Honors Program, her love of political sciences merged with her interest in environmental studies, leading Sharon to a career in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which she now teaches at the University of Kansas. Below, Sharon discusses the lasting influence that the Honors Program has had on her career, and offers a few words of advice for current students who are trying to plan their career paths.
Can you tell us about your background?
I grew up in Nashua, NH. Some of my fondest childhood memories are swimming at a pond in Hollis in the summer and cross-country skiing on weekends. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career when I grew up, but I knew I loved being outdoors, especially in the winter.
Why did you decide to attend UNH and what was your major?
I decided to go to UNH after learning that I received a Governor’s Success Scholarship that covered my tuition. I had taken a Political Science summer class at St. Paul’s School in Concord during high school, and knew I loved reading about foundational political philosophies. Though that was rather disparate from my other loves – snow and undeveloped landscapes – it felt like an intellectual home for me. I declared a Political Science major at UNH as a freshman. Though I never changed majors, I certainly questioned my choice many times. I didn’t know how to reconcile my love of reading and writing essays with my hopes to find something to do that would allow me to learn about natural places. At the time, the Sciences seemed to me to be a collection of facts about disparate parts. I was interested in entire ecosystems, though I didn’t know enough to formulate that sentence at the time.
Were you involved in any extracurricular activities or sports?
I started rowing crew at UNH. I loved rowing, and vowed to live on water when I could. However, I didn’t like the competitive relationships among team members. In retrospect, I recognize that rowing is a fantastic sport for me, but that I enjoy solitude much more than team dynamics. I dabbled in some intramural sports as well.
How did the Honors Program contribute to your experience at UNH?
The Honors Program was a wonderful experience, both intellectually and as a support system. I became good friends with Ginni Fish and Chris Sohl in the Honors Office, and found myself going there frequently to organize my thoughts about my future plans through conversations with them both. They both were invaluable to me as I navigated the exciting but scary waters of choosing a career.
Are there any notable professors you remember?
Some of my most significant memories as a college student were formed in Prof. John Kayser’s classes. His classes on political thought and philosophy were incredibly popular. I remember some students and community members showing up just to hear him lecture. His clarity of thought about philosophical and political treatises was incredible, and cascaded down to his notes on my essays. To this day, his writing tips help me immensely. Though my career is far removed from his classes in subject matter, I apply the writing and thinking skills he taught every day. I also took statistics classes from Larry Hamilton in Sociology. Those classes, unbeknownst to me at the time, were to become a key feature of my ability to shift from Political Science to become a natural scientist.
Did you write a thesis while at the Honors Program?
I enrolled in an independent study linked to the Honors Program that I think would have resulted in a thesis, but withdrew from the class before really starting it. By the time I was almost ready to graduate, I was having misgivings about where a Political Science degree would take me, and was very unsure of continuing to pursue it with such zeal. It was a very unsettling time for me – I realized with full force that my love of political philosophies and writing didn’t translate into an obvious career with an instruction manual!
What did you do after you graduated from UNH?
After I graduated, I worked as a Geographic Information Systems technician in the EOS building. I had always loved maps, and was looking for something to do while I figured out what my next big step would be. I ended up mapping deforestation in the rain forests of Amazonia, and became intrigued by what the data were showing. I took John Aber’s Terrestrial Ecosystems course as a non-degree seeking student, and was hooked. I remember watching him draw out how nitrogen moves through a forest on the blackboard and thinking “I don’t know what this means for my life, but I want to spend my time thinking about that!” It was an “ah-ha” moment for me. I applied to graduate school in Physical Geography at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and jumped at the chance to go. After the first year, I realized that Duke University had a research program more in line with my interests, and re-applied to graduate school, this time at Duke. I had some catch-up to do in the sciences, but between AP courses in high school and multiple science, math, and statistics courses at UNH, I had enough of a foundation to find my way at Duke.
And in recent years?
I obtained my Ph.D. at Duke in 1998 in Ecosystem Science. My dissertation project was based in the boreal forest of interior Alaska, studying the influence of changing precipitation patterns linked to climate change on forest biogeochemistry. After that, I was a post-doc working at an environmental change facility in Nevada, based at the University of Arkansas. I was a research assistant professor at Arkansas for just under a year, and I’ve been at the University of Kansas (KU) in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology since 2003. My research currently looks at the influence of different climate change scenarios on forest and grassland carbon and nitrogen fluxes. We’re interested in these elements because they provide feedbacks to Earth’s climate system – as climate change alters their cycling rates, they can either exacerbate or mitigate climate changes induced by human-caused greenhouse gases.
Do you have any advice you can share with our undergraduate students?
My advice to incoming, current, or graduating students who are wondering what to study is to learn to identify keywords that represent fields that excite you. I advise this to students at KU as well. Without even formulating sentences about what we want to do, if we simply know some key phrases or words that seem intriguing it’s often enough to prompt us to select a class that can change a trajectory. All it takes is one excellent professor to give us life-long memories and skills, or to present a captivating idea that gives us a new direction.