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Meet Melissa Kemp, Time Traveler

Meet Melissa Kemp, Time Traveler

Melissa Kemp studies how environmental changes impact biodiversity in tropical regions. In May, she published a study tracking human-driven species introductions in the Caribbean through 7,000 years of human habitation.

"I'm interested in these past instances of change that we can see through the fossil record, because it's the key to really understanding the biodiversity that we have today, but also helps us understand how biodiversity might change in the future," she recently told PBS NOVA.

Kemp, an assistant professor of integrative biology at The University of Texas at Austin, challenges the notion that restoring biodiversity in the Caribbean means going back to how things were before Christopher Columbus arrived.

"The ideal restoration target probably in the head of a lot of people in the public would be what the environment was like before we came and messed it all up," she said. "But it's not a realistic target, in part because we've lost so many species that were in the landscape before humans arrived."

In other words, people dramatically altered the Caribbean long before the first European visitors.

Kemp regularly involves undergraduate and high school students in her field and lab work. One of the coauthors of her latest paper is former undergraduate researcher Jenna Wadman, a 2020 graduate of UT Austin.

Kemp, who also happens to be African American, has always felt a deep connection to nature. She grew up on land bought by her great-great-great grandfather after Emancipation and loves spending time outdoors. Much of her current work involves digging in caves, where fossils have the best chance of being preserved in the hot, wet climate of the tropics.

"I live in Austin now, in a much more urban environment than I was raised in," she said. "But it's still very rejuvenating just to go outside and look at the sky, look at the plants, find animals on the property and just see that there's life there. Even when I'm doing my field research, there's bursts of active work where we're hiking through the rainforest trying to get to our site. But then when we get there, it can be very slow. The work that we're doing is very meditative. So nature is very therapeutic for me. It's played a very important role for me personally and professionally."
A time for reflection
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Saturday, 11 July 2020

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