Dr. Carla D’Antonio | Credit: Courtesy

Dr. Carla D’Antonio ― scientist, professor, and dedicated conservation leader ― is the keynote speaker for The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Ninth Annual Conservation Symposium. At the event, titled “After the Fires: Recovering California’s Wild Spaces,” D’Antonio will also be honored with the Pritzlaff Award for her forward-thinking approach to ecology and research on post-fire restoration. The symposium returns (virtually) after a year off for the pandemic and features a panel discussion and eight other speakers including scientists, biologists, and land managers from California and beyond.

“We are really excited about the array of speakers this year,” said Denise Knapp, Director of Conservation and Research at the Garden. “The topic addresses essentially two crises: climate change and a loss of biological diversity. We need to address both of these issues and this topic is at that intersection.”

While working towards her PhD in Marine Biology in Oregon, D’Antonio became increasingly interested in plants and restoration. She felt a strong urge to do research that had real implications on ecosystems and species. Even though her colleagues told her that applied science would be a terrible waste of her time, she couldn’t shake the itch that she had to do more tangible work. So, she took a leave from her PhD program, and tried her hand at some applied science jobs. As she navigated the stresses that many folks in their mid-twenties feel and wondered if she was derailing her life by leaving the marine biology program, hers is a success story of what can happen when you trust your instincts.

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D’Antonio has since earned her PhD at UCSB, worked as a botanist for Channel Islands National Park, studied invasive grasses at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and worked in the deserts of California and Nevada as part of the USDA Invasive Weeds Program. She has worked with graduate and undergraduate students in the field to guide them in learning about fires and finding and implementing conservation solutions. 

“When and Why Would We Need Post-Fire Restoration?” is the title of D’Antonio’s keynote speech at the symposium. The goals of her research are to understand how plants change across landscapes and how the invasion of species affects ecosystem composition, structure, and functioning. Her talk will stem from this research, in which fire restoration organically became a focus as she noticed that ecosystems are not responding to fires as expected. New species are popping up as native ones disappear, which poses the questions: can the loss of these diverse ecosystems be halted? Can we do something to promote more native biodiversity and positive change in the future?

D’Antonio will also discuss how both native species and humans can live together in a fire-prone landscape. “We needed to understand and realize that humans are part of the system, not separate from it,” D’Antonio said.

When asked about the anticipated takeaways from her upcoming talk, D’Antonio described finding a balance between humans and nature and cultivating a landscape where native biodiversity can thrive. “We have to think about how we want to live in these landscapes with fire. We have to. We can’t stop it,” she said. “But we can think about how to live with it and promote biodiversity values at the same time.”

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