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Faculty Profile: Dr. Madhusudan Katti

Dr. Madhusudan Katti is an Associate Professor in the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program for Leadership in Public Science and the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. As an evolutionary ecologist, he engages local communities and the broader public in studying how human activities and histories of colonization and segregation shape the distribution of nature and biodiversity, especially in urban areas. An immigrant from India, Dr. Katti has experienced discrimination in U.S. academia and has been actively engaged in challenging academic culture to become truly inclusive and equitable.

1. What do you study?

I study how human activities and interactions with nature influence the distribution and abundance of wildlife, especially birds, in cities. I am particularly interested in how social inequalities and spatial segregation along race/enthnicity/class lines as well as migration shape the distribution of natural spaces in cities, and the resulting environmental inequities and injustices. My goal is to apply a deeper ecological and evolutionary understanding of nature to inform the design and management of cities in ways that reconcile human wellbeing with wildlife conservation where most people live, work, and play.

2. How did you get in your field?

I was trained as a zoologist (BSc from University of Bombay) and a wildlife scientist (MSc from Wildlife Institute of India) before migrating to the US for further graduate research. I obtained my Ph.D. in evolutionary ecology from the University of California in San Diego while studying the winter ecology and distribution of migratory warblers in India. That led, initially, to postdoctoral research in behavioral endocrinology, focusing on how the timing of critical events such as migration, onset of breeding, and related life history events are hormonally regulated to synchronize with external environmental changes. My path changed with my second postdoctoral fellowship in one of the first Long-Term Ecological Research sites (part of an NSF network) in Phoenix, Arizona, where I created the long-term monitoring program for bird distribution and populations. I delved deeper into urban ecology after that and have continued to work on understanding the dynamics of cities as coupled socio-ecological systems.

3. What is most exciting about your research, and/or what do you hope to achieve with your research?

I’ve had the opportunity to make some really exciting novel and unique contributions to the development of urban ecology in the past couple of decades. During my postdoctoral research at Arizona State University, I co-authored several papers exploring the various impacts of urban noise on vocal communication in birds. These papers continued to be highly cited as they helped lay the foundations for the field of Urban Bioacoustics. The long-term bird monitoring program I established there continues to document birds across the sprawling Phoenix metro region, now in the 20th year since I designed it!

Subsequently, as a faculty member in California State University, Fresno, California, I developed ways to engage the local communities in research through citizen science and science communication. The Fresno Bird Count became a good model for the Triangle Bird Count project run through my research group here at NC State. Along with this local level research, I also helped create an international network of collaborators studying urban ecology around the world using different disciplinary perspectives. This network, initiated in 2010, grew in the UrBioNet project funded by the National Science Foundation, and continues to produce new and exciting research papers. Our first paper analyzed the distribution of birds and plants in around 150 cities worldwide, the first time anyone had attempted a comparative analysis on such a global scale. Most excitingly for me, we found that cities continue to harbor surprisingly rich assemblages of plants and birds across the world, and only a minority (30% in plants, <5% in birds) of species are non-native invasive or nuisance species! We were able to show, for the first time on a global scale, that cities are not “ecological deserts” but are actually rich in biodiversity, and in some cases, even provide important habitat for endangered species. This paper, co-authored by 24 collaborators, is my most cited work, and has helped changed people’s perceptions of urban nature and wildlife conservation in cities.

In more recent work here at NC State, using the framework of the Triangle Bird Count, my research group is seeking to do more community-engaged work, and focus deeper on how racial / socioeconomic segregation influences the distribution of and access to nature and wildlife in cities. My recent graduate student, Deja Perkins, for example, found that segregation and income gradients do influence bird diversity across the Triangle’s urban sprawl, and also showed that there are systematic biases in popular citizen science programs such as eBird which reflect and may exacerbate inequalities.

I am also excited to be leading a unique natural science—social science—humanities—art collaboration in the Forests After Florence project, where we engaged 50 NC State undergraduate students to help document the impacts of 2018’s Hurricane Florence on trees and human communities across the eastern part of North Carolina. This project is unique in that we set out to simultaneously study the ecological and social impacts of the hurricane on people and trees, while also providing students from hurricane impacted communities to help their communities develop a better understanding of impacts, which hopefully lead to better management for resilience in the future.

In Fresno, I also founded the Central Valley Café Scientifique, a monthly public gathering (at a pub or restaurant) to bring science into the public discourse in a highly populated region that does not offer many opportunities for people to access science (no museums, for example). This Café Scientifique, which later also added a monthly live radio show and podcast (Science: A Candle In The Dark) is still continuing in its 13th year now, and is something I am really proud of creating.

4. What led to you becoming a professor at NC State?

It was my public science engagement (Fresno Bird Count; Café Scientifique, my blog and other public writing, and radio/podcasting) that caught the attention of the search committee formed to create then newly proposed interdisciplinary faculty cluster for Leadership for Public Science in 2015-16. I was urged to apply, and subsequently offered this position in 2016, and I moved here in Fall of that year.

5.  What is your favorite course to teach?

In the past, I have really enjoyed teaching Evolution, Biology of Reptiles and Birds, and Reconciliation Ecology. Here at NC State, I enjoy teaching Urban Wildlife Management (FW 403) and a new course I developed last year on Decolonizing Science (NR 595). Both have led to students engaging in authentic research. One undergraduate student from FW 403 developed an undergraduate thesis project with me and has made an interesting discovery about the impact of noise on bird distributions in Raleigh that is likely to become an exciting publication soon. A small team of grad students, led by an undergrad, from the Decolonizing Science class collaborated to write an article about the impact of pandemics on Native American (specifically Navajo) communities which is now accepted for publication in “Science for the People” magazine very soon. This kind of direct engagement in novel research and scholarship is what gives me the most joy in my teaching!

6. What advice would you give students interested in your field of study?

I would start by asking students to learn about nature and wildlife in their immediate surroundings, near their homes or on campus. I urge and train them to develop the skills of careful observation of nature, and to be able to be attentive to small things that often get overlooked in the daily bustle of urban life and our ever distracting electronic screens. I also urge students to get involved in authentic research as soon as possible during undergraduate years. As noted above, I am often thrilled to see undergrads, especially those from underrepresented minority, thrive in research and even produce publishable research while becoming engaged in collaborative networks that can sustain them for the longer term, regardless of the careers they choose. Finally, I emphasize developing a broader comprehensive and integrative framework and an interdisciplinary toolkit that are necessary to unravel the complex dynamics of social-ecological systems which present some of the thorniest “wicked” problems for the long-term sustainability of humanity and biodiversity on this ever changing planet now under ever-increasing pressures from our own activities.