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James Watling, Ph.D. was a junior in college when he studied abroad in Ecuador for a semester. He had never left the country before. Months later, he returned home after studying the Amazon, climbing volcanoes, and conducting original scientific research from beginning to end. He had found his calling.

Now, as a result of his commitment to research in environmental biology, he will serve as a 2020 Fulbright Specialist in Colombia. Dr. Watling, an associate professor of biology, will spend the spring 2020 semester at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá. The Fulbright Specialist Program is sponsored by the U.S. State Department and gives academics and professionals the opportunity to engage with host institutions across the globe. More than 425 Fulbright Specialists travel abroad each year.His research will focus on mechanistic ecological models, with the hope of forecasting the effects of environmental change on biodiversity.

“Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet,” Watling says. “I’m proud to be able to work with the largest Jesuit university in Colombia.”

Colombia is becoming more politically stable following a decades-long civil war. The unintended consequences of peace makes the work of Watling and his colleagues critical. “Peace and stability have made previously off-limits areas increasingly available for mining and agriculture,” he says. “This exploitation of natural resources has had a major effect on deforestation.”

Watling’s models utilize complex equations which combine environmental conditions, like forest cover and climate, with detailed data on the physiology of individual species. The researchers can then estimate responses in growth rates, population sizes, demographic changes and more. “The use of these models lets us be proactive in identifying species and ecosystems at future risk, which would then become priorities for conservation,” says Watling.

Watling stands in his lab at a computer and analyzes mapping data

He also views his work as fundamentally aligned with John Carroll’s Jesuit mission. “Environmental justice is a huge component of social justice,” Watling says. “Access to clean, quality water, sustainable use of natural resources … these are all important issues. Marginalized populations are the least consumptive, but bear the brunt of climate change.” 

“The work we do is to help ensure sustainable natural resources for humans and the millions of species that we share the planet with.”

Dr. Watling and professors from the Department of Biology conduct research throughout the academic year on campus and around the world. Learn more about research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students at

Watling and his research group stand in the Amazon

Watling and his colleagues at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia will study changing ecosystems as a result of deforestation.