Jonathan Coop, Ph.D. is a forest ecologist who studies how natural systems are affected by land use, fire suppression and climate change. Coop works with land managers to test, develop and look at intervention strategies to try to maintain forests and systems, or to make forests and systems more resilient in a time of certain change.
“I think there are reasons to be deeply pessimistic,” he said. “Looking at the state of the natural environment and our effects on it and how affectively we are addressing that or not, getting really depressed and pessimistic is a very rational response … but there is evidence that society can change in response to changing values and information. It just requires getting to a certain threshold or critical mass.”
Born and raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Coop vividly remembers the 1977 La Mesa Fire. In the decades to follow, the 1996 Dome Fire and 2000 Cerro Grande Fire sparked Coop’s interest to conduct his dissertation research in his hometown. More recent blazes such as the 2011 La Conchas Fire have only furthered Coop’s interest in the area.
“[Los Alamos] has been a formative landscape for me. I have a vivid memory of being in my backyard and seeing this plume of smoke and little pieces of ash falling on my town,” he said. “I’m seeing the effects of these unintentional human influences on the natural environment … and they are super gnarly.”
Now a professor 250 miles up the road from his hometown, Coop has found home in the heart of the Rockies since his arrival ten years ago. He’s a father, mountain biker, skier, rafter, percussionist and sauerkraut-fermenter—and still finds time to work on “science projects” in this free time. In the classroom and field, Coop puts particular attention on involving his students in real research.
“It’s never like, ‘oh you’re the student and I’m the professor,’” he said. “I’m really proud we can produce high-quality research and publish papers in scientific journals with my students. We’re out on the cutting edge of our field learning the things we don’t know yet. I’m really stoked about it.”
Coop’s interest in involving his students in research runs deeper than producing papers. Sure, it’s a way to pique their interest and is a surefire resume-bolster for students, but the interest they take thereafter is the torch that will carry ecological research and action into future generations.
“My students have taught me why I should be hopeful about the future of the world,” he said. “My biggest accomplishments are when I’m able to get them excited about what I’m excited about. And I don’t want to take too much credit for that because I think it’s already all in there, but I’m proud when I can give students the context and opportunities for that passion to come through.”