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 understand effects of fire, climate and insects on forests, and develop and test intervention strategies to try to maintain forests, or to make forests 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 effectively 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.”
Raised in Los Alamos, N.M., Coop vividly remembers the 1977 La Mesa Fire burning in nearby Bandelier National Monument. 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 Las Conchas Fire have only furthered Coop’s interest in the area.
“The Jemez Mountains have 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 a home in the heart of the Rockies since his arrival 10 years ago. He’s a father, mountain biker, skier, rafter, percussionist, hunter and sauerkraut-fermenter—and still finds time to work on “science projects” in his 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. “We can produce high-quality research and publish papers in scientific journals with our 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 stoked when I can give students the context and opportunities for that passion to come through.”