Katie Greenberg

Women in Science Menu
Katie Greenberg looking through binoculars

Studying breeding bird population dynamics requires going out into the field to survey birds. When in the field, Greenberg uses both sight and sound to identify and record nearby birds. (Forest Service photo)

Meet Cathryn (Katie) H. Greenberg, a natural resource specialist from the Upland Hardwood Ecology and Management research work unit (RWU) located at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest in Asheville, NC. Greenberg holds an M.S. in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Tennessee and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Florida. She studies the effects of natural and anthropogenic disturbances on plant and animal communities, specifically looking at their impacts on forest food resources and wildlife such as reptiles, amphibians, and breeding birds. Greenberg conducts long-term studies at the landscape level to gain a more complete understanding of wildlife population and ecosystem dynamics. Understanding how forests and wildlife communities respond to disturbances is crucial for species conservation, diversity, and for developing science-based land management practices.

What do you do for the Southern Research Station?

I study how disturbances affect forests, especially the animals of the forest. I look at disturbance types such as prescribed fire and wildfire, timber harvesting, and extreme winds. Recently, for example, I have been working with colleagues to survey breeding bird communities across a gradient of wildfire severity to better understand how they respond to varying levels of canopy openness. I also study whether native fruit (such as blackberries, pokeweed, dogwood or black cherry fruits) production is higher in young, recently harvested forests or in more mature forests, and how that production changes over time. Based on 16 years of data, we have found that there is significantly more fruit lasting for at least 5 years in recently disturbed forests, and the amount declines over time as young trees re-grow and shade the forest floor.

I believe in doing applied research and communicating the results to users, including forest and wildlife managers and other scientists. I also try to work with forest and wildlife managers to accomplish research and monitoring goals. Often, we are doing similar work that could be accomplished more efficiently if we partnered to answer management-based questions together. In our RWU, we often design cooperative, multidisciplinary studies that address multiple questions. This collaborative strategy expands the information gained from a single experimental study.

When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?

In 1990, I was working in Florida as a Biologist for the Department of Transportation. At a University of Florida gathering, I heard someone from the Forest Service’s Southeastern Forest Experiment Station (now the Southern Research Station) saying they had funding for a Ph.D. student to study how forest management affected forests and wildlife in Florida. This was also a time when the Forest Service was focused on hiring more women, which might have helped. I was offered a Research Assistantship, and completed a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. After about a year, the unit in Florida closed, and I was offered a Research Ecologist position at Bent Creek in the southern Appalachian mountains, where I’ve been ever since!

Katie Greenberg being interviewed on TV

Greenberg was interviewed by UNC-TV to share information on the importance of acorns: their role in the forest community and their use as a marker of forest health. View the video, “Acorns Count,” here.

What led you to pursue this field of study?

Honestly, I stumbled into this field. For my undergraduate degree I majored in philosophy, so I graduated college unsure of what I wanted to do next. I traveled around a little bit and ended up in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). I absolutely loved the beauty in those mountains and forests. I had no idea that you could make a living studying forests and wildlife! I volunteered at GSMNP fulltime for 6 months, mostly working with their Resource Management crew. That’s how I learned about the field of forest and wildlife management and conservation.

Eventually, I went back to school to get my M.S. in Wildlife Ecology at the University of Tennessee. I worked as a Ranger Naturalist at GSMNP for two summers, and also worked on a vegetation crew in the park. My career took off from there.

What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?

These days, a typical workday for me is spent in the office. I used to do much of my own fieldwork, and that was really exciting. I still get out into the field every once in a while to check on studies and help out our technicians or students.

Generally I work in my office, a cabin at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, analyzing data and writing papers. I also give tours of our research at the Experimental Forest for forest managers and University groups, and I participate in silviculture workshops at our training center.

Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?

I have been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to design and conduct lots of interesting, applied studies that help answer questions related to many different forest management issues. One of the best things about Forest Service research is our ability to conduct long-term studies to address scientific questions that grant-funded, shorter-term studies cannot.

I also served as Project Leader for my RWU for seven years. This was an opportunity to take on a leadership role and expand beyond my scientific endeavors.

To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?

I don't feel that I have encountered major barriers, although there are subtle differences in how male versus female scientists (or other professionals) are perceived. One challenge was juggling parenting and work. Thanks to the Forest Service’s policies allowing a flexible work schedule, I was able to remain a productive scientist and also raise a family. That flexibility makes a big difference, and benefits everyone.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I still can't believe that I get paid to study the woods. The longevity and continuity of my work has allowed me to gradually build an understanding of many aspects of forest and wildlife dynamics. I like to think of it as one big puzzle; the results of each study provide another piece, and gradually a more complete, multi-faceted picture emerges regarding how disturbances affect forests and wildlife.

Katie giving a presentation

Forest research results need to be shared with users. Greenberg believes in the importance of communicating her results and their implications, and works to teach others about forest dynamics through publications and workshops. (Forest Service photo)

What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?

My advice would be that if you enjoy science, then don't hesitate to become a scientist! Work is most meaningful when you care about what you are doing and feel that you are making some small contribution to the world.

And for other women especially, don't believe that you must choose between working and having a family. It is not necessary to sacrifice one for the other. Both are meaningful parts of life, so if you want children and a professional career, there are many ways to make both work simultaneously.

Katie Greenberg leading a workshop outdoors

The Bent Creek Experimental Forest offers workshops in silviculture for forest managers and personnel. This workshop focused on oak regeneration, a task which requires active forest management to help oak trees grow amidst more competitive tree species. (Forest Service photo)