Faculty Profile: Assistant Professor McWethy highlights a forward focus in research

David McWethy, Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and a Ph.D. from MSU’s Ecology Department, has been teaching at MSU since 2009.

McWethy’s research focuses on the impact of ecosystem disturbances and how humans alter “disturbance regimes.” Recently, he has been studying the arrival of humans in New Zealand 700 years ago and the consequential alteration of ecological wildfire regimes. McWethy explained that by researching and understanding cause-effect relationships in past ecosystems, we are better prepared for present changes; observing the past to better predict the future.

“I’ve always been interested in human interactions with the environment and what drives ecological diversity around the world and what we can learn … when we look into the future.” McWethy’s research looks intentionally to the future: “The climate is changing and we’re going to need to know what to expect and how to survive.”

In 2012, McWethy took a group of eight MSU students to the Antarctic Peninsula for two and a half weeks to study the relationships between climate change, ecology and the presence of humans. The location provides an excellent learning opportunity, McWethy explained. “Things are happening really fast — it’s a sentinel of change. You see the effect of climate change impacting the ecology of the peninsula very rapidly and very dramatically,” he said. “It’s a remarkable ecosystem in terms of the wildlife and the climate itself.” McWethy was also enthusiastic about the student’s response. “It was really exciting,” he shared. “The students came back and they were really jazzed about new topics they wanted to explore. It was a pretty inspiring trip.”

McWethy is planning a similar trip for next year, with the addition of a preparatory course. “We have students that want to go,” he explained, “but we’d like to do more groundwork.”  He hopes to design a foundational course so students leave for Antarctica having “been through discussions and exposed to some of the material,” so that upon arrival, “they really can take advantage of it.”

McWethy is originally from Minnesota, but he has lived in Montana and Idaho for almost 20 years. Before then, his research and environmental work took him to a variety of locations, including Senegal (with the Peace Corps doing agro-forestry), Kenya, Alaska and many parts of North America with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Currently, McWethy teaches a field course called “Yellowstone: A Scientific Laboratory.” This class includes three field trips to Yellowstone, the second of which had to be modified due to government shutdown. McWethy said his concern about the shutdown was not limited to Yellowstone access, but also delays in the processing of government grant funds supporting a research project in the Mission Valley. In reference to the temporary government shutdown, he positively remarked, “[Yellowstone]’s open today, that’s good news.” His class’s final trip is in two weeks, “everybody was wondering, ‘will we get our last field trip into Yellowstone?’” he laughed, adding, “looks like we should.”

McWethy desires to promote students’ appreciation of their immediate environment, including designing a program to lead freshmen through Yellowstone, to understand the current research and its value. His hope is to continue this program yearly, so new students have the experience to understand Yellowstone’s significance and the opportunity to become involved in local research early in on their undergraduate studies. McWethy explained he wants to help minimize the number of students that “go through Yellowstone once, maybe just shoot through, but not really understand what’s there.”

“I’m trying to get more students to know more about the setting of MSU,” McWethy added, “it’s an amazing place to be surrounded by.”