Students studying with Gretchen Coffman, Professor of Environmental Management and Environmental Science at USF, benefit from her research. "I bring my research experience as a restoration ecologist into the classroom, both in California and internationally. I feel that my students really connect and enjoy learning about environmental science and ecology through a more personal experience," Gretchen explained. "I feel that USF professors are focused on incorporating research into our teaching, and not just teaching out of a textbook." Students also gain applied skills that help them land jobs immediately after graduating, something Coffman is proud of.
"We don't just study theory. We take action. We are restoring ecosystems using a hands-on approach," stressed Coffman. Her research focuses on restoration of local dune ecosystems, as well as working in developing countries, such as such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, preserving and restoring endangered ecosystems. Coffman's current research is located in a remote village in Laos where she is studying a critically endangered swamp cypress tree species that is on the verge of extinction in the wild. Awarded a prestigious grant from National Geographic, she is leading a team of students and researchers, conducting botanical surveys in order to understand the biology and ecology of the trees and identify strategies to help restore the species. Robin Hunter, a graduate student in the Masters of Science Environmental Management Program, added, “It was an amazing opportunity to work with Professor Coffman in Laos. I was able to take skills I learned in the classroom and apply them to a real-world conservation issue. I learned a great deal about organizing and implementing a field expedition. It was an honor to work with world experts on conifer conservation, as well as local villagers.”
Coffman is teaching students the science of restoration ecology, but also integrating the real-world challenges of promoting sustainable development in developing countries, where the short-term economic gains can threaten ecosystems. Villagers build their homes out of these trees and build rice paddies in forested wetland ecosystems where they grew. On her expedition in Laos, the researcher also became a diplomat, educating the local villagers about their significance. "We need to understand the importance of these trees and how they fit in the entire ecosystem to save them," she said as she shared her story about her negotiations with the locals to get their support, so her research could continue.