Aimée Classen, 40, knows it's a cliché for scientists to say their childhoods spent outside, exploring their backyards, led them to their current careers.
"But those early experiences outside and thinking about ‘Why is there all this diversity?' Of course I didn't frame it in that way when I was a little kid. Why do we see such interesting things? Why is the beach different than the mountains? All these little experiences add up and you think ‘Wow, I can have this as a job!'" she says.
Classen seems most animated when talking about her work—both as an associate professor of ecosystems ecology at the University of Tennessee and as an associate editor-in-chief of the academic journal Ecological Monographs—and about the opportunities East Tennessee offers for ecology research.
"There's a nice science community here with lots of people who work on similar topics. Within [the College of] Arts and Sciences, there are like six different people I want to collaborate with," she says.
The North Carolina native originally taught middle school biology, and says she enjoyed teaching that age group because "it was one of the first times they get introduced to what I think of a real science—sort of inquiry-based science," she says. "By the time students get to biology in college they're sort of jaded about that stuff. When they're young, they're like ‘Wow, look! That's mitosis!'"
While Classen was teaching middle school in California, she contacted professors at Berkeley and Stanford and asked if she could work with them on the weekends. She dabbled in conservation and evolutionary biology before finding an ecology lab to work in. She wound up working with two ecosystem ecologists at Berkeley and Stanford, researching the relationships between algae, waves, and snails. That experience took to her Northern Arizona University, where she earned her doctorate while studying the relationship between plant-eating insects and trees.
"That was interesting to me because previously ecosystem ecologists had thought ‘Well, insect herbivores might be important, but really all they really do is eat things, and they don't eat as much as plants grow,'" she says. "I was interested in seeing if, through these different mechanisms, insect herbivores— something so tiny you could hardly see, a scale insect—could influence ecosystems through this pathway of causing trees not to be able to re-absorb their nutrients."
From there, Classen did a stint in Arcadia, Calif., where her husband was a faculty member at Humboldt State University before the family came to East Tennessee. Classen was a post-doc fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and eventually became a staff scientist studying the impact climate change has on ecosystems, both in terms of biotic factors such as the types and number of plants in an area, and abiotic factors like temperature. Classen is watching what happens in an ecosystem when biotic and abiotic factors change at the same time.
"Global change is happening. There are surfaces that people care about, even if it's just based on recreation. So we take the Smokies and you love the Smokies, and you like hiking and being in the Smokies. And one of the most incredible things about the Smokies is they're so diverse! It's a biodiversity hot spot here! This is one the unique places in the world to live. And they're changing because of global change. And so the Smokies...could function in a different way that people in this area care about," she says.
When she's not in the middle of the semester working with her undergraduate and graduate students or reading papers submitted to Ecological Monographs, Classen says she and her family like to get outside and go biking or hiking. Classen actually just competed in her first triathlon.
"It was fun! I completed it. That was the goal," she says, laughing. "I think recharging is really important and undervalued. Just taking the time to be active [is important]."