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Simone Whitecloud

Research Interests

Community dynamics among alpine and arctic plant species as well as Native uses of these plants

Fellowship

Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship in Polar Environment Change, Dickey Institute of Arctic Studies

Simone Whitecloud,
Ph.D. Student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Simone Whitecloud

Photo by Seano

Ph.D. Student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Whitecloud started with a master’s program at San Francisco State University, delving into the subject of aquatic insects. Her advisor encouraged her to consider a doctoral program and particularly one at Dartmouth with Mark McPeek.

“Mark was the draw for me,” says Whitecloud. “He’s rewriting ecological theory in his field. When it came time, I applied to only one graduate school: Dartmouth, to work with Mark McPeek."

Although Whitecloud was initially interested in aquatic insects, she was delighted when, to her surprise McPeek suggested she make her research focus “as different from mine as possible.”

Whitecloud seized the opportunity. An IGERT fellowship for studying polar climate change encouraged her to examine alpine and arctic plant species, looking for clues on how climate changes might be affecting these fragile species.

“I’d never experienced winter in a cold climate before,” says Whitecloud. To prepare for work in polar regions, she began investigating communities of alpine species above tree line in the New Hampshire and Vermont mountains.

“My question is what drives community dynamics? Thirty percent of alpine species are also found in the arctic. I’m hoping to find a single community among arctic-derived alpine plants to compare dynamics of the same species in the arctic versus the alpine zone of New England. Are they in competition with each other or do they facilitate one another? Most of the research has focused on competition but facilitation has been found in desert environments. I’m looking to see if it occurs in alpine and arctic communities where the abiotic factors — temperature, wind, short growing season — tend to be the biggest survival challenges plants face. How does this affect their interactions?”

Whitecloud spent 10 days this summer in Greenland planning for an extended study there next summer and sampling plants in much the same fashion as she had in the White Mountains. Along with the native plants, Whitecloud is examining the effects of climate change on the indigenous populations who subsist on caribou and use arctic plants medicinally. Working with these populations, she says, is the other important aspect of her research and the IGERT fellowship.

“As an Anishnabeg, my interests are as much Indian as they are scientific. I was especially drawn to the IGERT work because it allows me to balance my spiritual beliefs with my scientific objectivity.”

Whitecloud will meet with the Greenlanders and compare their traditional ecological perspective with that of Abenaki elders she’s spoken with back in New England.

“The Greenland Natives are living climate change firsthand,” says Whitecloud. “They are subsistence hunters, reliant on caribou and muskox herds. The plants the caribou depend on have started flowering earlier, but the animals haven’t changed when they calf. If they are out of sync, how does that affect their survival and that of the people who hunt them? What about the medicinal plants they use? The more information on climate change we can find, the more hope we have of helping Greenlanders prepare for imminent change.

Back in Hanover, Whitecloud is excited when it’s her turn to present her data at the regular lab meeting among the ecological and environmental biology graduates students.

“I can’t wait to show them what I’ve found,” she says. “To ask them: here’s all this data I’ve collected — what other questions can I ask of it? Where do I go next?”

Last Updated: 12/13/13