Assistant Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Shinjini Goswami speaks for the trees

During her bachelor’s degree program in her home country of India, Assistant Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences and Assistant Professor of Biology Shinjini Goswami studied ecological sustainability practices in mangrove communities. The research itself had immediate significance, as mangrove forests are the only native habitats for the Royal Bengal tiger, but it also piqued her interest in ecology and started her on a lifetime of ecological work.

From her undergraduate studies in India, Goswami’s ecological journey slowly moved west. She completed her master’s degree in Europe─ studying mushroom productivity in Catalonia, Western Spain, and hemlock trees in Vienna, Austria─ then finally landed in the United States for her PhD program during which she studied the white mountain forests of New Hampshire. Now, as a faculty member at Lees-McRae, Goswami brings her experience to the unique environment of the High Country.

“It’s a full circle, and that’s what I want to do with my life,” Goswami said. “When I first started my undergraduate, I was very interested in becoming a medical surgeon. It’s a very strange journey I’ve been on, but it’s not a willy-nilly journey. I was very interested in being a surgeon once upon a time and then I was like, ‘no, there are people to take care of people, we need more people to take care of the Earth.’”

Goswami said that her experiences working in diverse habitats around the world have prepared her well for her current position at Lees-McRae. She explained that eastern hemlock trees in the southern Appalachian region suffer from the same non-native parasitic insect as the hemlock trees she studied in Austria. There are additional similarities between the forests of this region, and the white mountain forests she studied for her PhD.

“The location of Lees-McRae is in very good confluence with my work, because this is one of the most biodiverse parts of the United States. This is a beautiful place for an ecologist to work, so that was one of the drawing strengths for me,” Goswami said. “This is the hottest bed for salamander diversity, this is the hottest bed for plant diversity; this is just an incredibly wet, moist, humid area that supports fertile biodiversity.”

Goswami defines herself as an “ecosystem ecologist,” and seeks to share her passion for ecology, environmentalism, and sustainability with her students at Lees-McRae.

“You could call me a plant-biased person,” Goswami said. “Here there are a lot of students who are interested in wildlife biology and are very interested and gung-ho about working with animals. My part of the story is I tell them where the animals live, and how they eat, so more holistically approaching that at an ecosystem level, and how different types of species interact with each other.”

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Goswami has big plans to help with sustainability and environmentalism at Lees-McRae. She has multiple projects in the works, including conducting research on the effects of deer and other species’ herbivory in the Elk Valley Preserve, monitoring milkweed populations in the area to help support monarch butterfly populations, reinvigorating garden spaces and the greenhouse on campus, and registering Lees-McRae as part of Tree Campus Higher Education.

Many of these projects will help enrich the community and environment, but they will also create more experiential learning opportunities for her students.

“I’m interested in the maintaining and shaping of the greenhouse, regenerating a lot of plants there, and utilizing that resource when I teach ecology, evolution, general botany, and field botany,” Goswami said. “Several different courses can directly use specimens from the greenhouse and get hands-on experiential learning exposure through looking at these plants that don’t grow here. They wouldn't be able to see these adaptations if they just walk outside in the forest.”

Registering the college as part of Tree Campus Higher Education would be a useful educational opportunity for students, Goswami believes, but would also be hugely beneficial to the local community. On their website, the Arbor Day Foundation, which started Tree Campus Higher Education in 2008, lists several benefits to joining the organization, including the fact that, “involving students in tree-related service-learning projects helps educate the next generation about the importance of caring for the environment.” This is where another of Goswami’s ideas, a campus tree walk, comes into play.

“I’m currently involving a couple of my junior and senior students with this project where I want to do a complete inventory of the trees that are here, and utilize that as a campus tree walk,” Goswami said. “That could be open to the public, that could be open to alumni, that could be open to anyone who’s visiting the campus. We have a beautiful campus, and some very beautiful trees, so once we do a complete inventory, we can digitize that information and upload that as a campus tree walk map and put it up on the website.”

She hopes that this project will serve a dual purpose of protecting the beautiful natural resources that the Lees-McRae campus and local region have to offer, while acting as a valuable experiential learning opportunity for both future students and the community.

“The greater number of higher education institutions that become part of Tree Campus USA provides us with good tools and databases to attract outside funding and maintenance of the campus walk. The trees that are part of that campus walk wouldn’t be able to be cut down willy-nilly once you submit that,” Goswami said. “I’m interested in writing a grant and submitting it through various external agencies.”

With all these different projects and ideas, Goswami maintains one overarching goal: to cure plant blindness. This desire, one that goes hand in hand with helping to heal and protect the Earth through sustainability practices, traces all the way back to the beginning of her journey in the mangroves of India.

“For obvious reasons, people think everything green is a plant, or that plants are just beautiful, and they stand there and don’t move so we don’t have to do anything to take care of them. I want to create more of an acceptance of the fact that we are just one species out of the millions and millions of species on Earth,” Goswami said. “To me it’s not just about feeding my soul, but also to share some of that knowledge and information with my students and make them more cognizant individuals. It’s not just something green out there. We’ve only got one Earth, so we need to take care of it.”

By Maya JarrellJune 22, 2022