Student Research Incorporates Linguistics with Ecology

On September 4, 2013 by Grad Forum

simone_thumbnailSimone Whitecloud, a sixth-year PhD candidate, studies with Professor Mark McPeek in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) program. While working toward a master’s degree in ecology at San Francisco State University, she developed interest in the dynamics between different species, a central tenet of community ecology. To pursue this line of inquiry she joined the McPeek lab, inspired by his mathematical modeling of interactions between different species.

Her dissertation work focuses on understanding plants – how they interact at a community level, and what happens when humans are included in a community. She investigates plant-plant interactions under the extreme environment of the alpine tundra of New Hampshire. Her National Science Foundation IGERT fellowship sent her to Greenland, which is home to many of the same plants found in the alpine tundra. The fellowship seeks to train graduate students to work across disciplines, so Whitecloud added a human component to her research: documenting plant uses among the indigenous people (Inuit) of Greenland. Soon afterward, she began to question what would happen if human harvesting practices were included in the study of plant community dynamics.

Whitecloud collaborates with Professor Lenore Grenoble, a linguist at the University of Chicago and Co-PI on the IGERT program. This collaboration bridges the gap between humanities and ecology and allows them to determine “if the etymology of plant names and the uses of plants reflect the migration of people on the island [of Greenland] in the last 500 years.” Whitecloud’s research has gained popularity in Greenland, where the population is predominately Inuit.

Whitecloud explains that, “modernization and climate change threaten maintenance of traditional knowledge… Greenlanders are trying to eat locally and depend less on imported foods and goods as they gain independence from Denmark. As plant ranges shift in response to warming, there is a potential for local knowledge to be lost as plants move out of a range, but also for new plants to move into a region.”

Whitecloud’s work involves recording the Inuit knowledge and making it available to Greenlanders. Because most arctic plants are circumpolar, the information will also be pertinent to other communities across the Arctic.

Whitecloud was recently awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) from the National Science Foundation for the 2013-14 academic year.  This grant will allow her to continue her dissertation research in ethno-botany and ethno-linguistics to explore the cross-dialectical similarities and differences among the known dialects of the Greenlandic language. One facet of her research there will include documentation of harvesting practices to incorporate into plant community modeling. When she leaves Dartmouth, she hopes to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship to continue researching plant uses throughout the Arctic and how human harvesting practices affect plant-plant interactions

by Amanda Balboni

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