College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter

Fall 1999

New biology center links science and policy to save rainforests

     Scientists and policymakers both play important roles in the struggle to preserve the biodiversity of the world's rainforests.  Unfortunately, these groups all too often travel in circles that fail to intersect. SFSU's new Center for Tropical Research (CTR) was created to help bridge this conservation science/policy chasm.
     Created little over a year ago, CTR is a biological research center dedicated to preserving the worldís rainforests. To that end, the Center conducts basic and applied biological research in order to better understand essential biotic processes that produce and maintain tropical biodiversity worldwide. Research results are then integrated into sustainable development programs and conservation policies that are appropriate to tropical economies, with the goal of maximizing overall conservation programs.
     The Centerís leadership is structured to promote both these goals. Executive Director Tom Smith (Professor, Biology) brings two decades of expertise in evolutionary and conservation biology.  Associate Director Todd Schafer, by contrast, has spent more than 15 years in the fields of economics, third-world planning, African development, and public policy. Together, they assure that the centerís findings are both scientifically solid and policy-relevant.
     In just 18 months, CTR has grown from a modest research team to an impressive international team that has the Centerís small space bursting at the seams. By securing more than $3.3 million in research grants, CTR has been able to add a stable of post-doctoral research fellows who will move research into new directions: Dr. Hans Slabbekoorn (Holland); Dr. Karen Holder (Canada); Dr. Ravinder Sehgal (USA); Dr. Catherine Graham (USA); Dr. Sonya Clegg (Australia). A sixth post-doc will be named before the end of the year.
     In addition, CTR is developing a network of prominent scientists from within the department and from around the globe to serve as Senior Research Fellows and participate in collaborative projects. Members include: Dr. Robert Wayne (UCLA); Dr. Craig Moritz (University of Queensland, Australia); Dr. Chris Schneider (Boston University); Dr. Eduardo Santana (University of Guadalajara, Mexico); Dr. Roget Fotso (Wildlife Conservation Society, New York and Cameroon); and Dr. Tom Parker, Dr. Greg Spicer, and Dr. Eric Routman from SFSU.
     "Three things make CTR stand out from the pack," says Schafer. "First is our focus on process. For us, it's not enough to 'save the rainforest.' We believe you must save the dynamic evolutionary and ecological processes that produce and sustain the rainforest if we truly are to save it. Second is our interest in linking directly into conservation policy. By teaming up with the policy crowd at the outset, our findings will be 'in play' at least a decade earlier than if we'd waited for the information to trickle through the scientific journals. Finally, we're located at a CSU.  We're drawing attention to the fact that first-rate science happens here and that research experience is a critical component of scientific instruction."
     With research underway in Australia, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Mexico and Ecuador, the Center is off to an ambitious start.  Like any start-up company, ultimate success depends on the Center's ability to sustain its early momentum.  At present, CTR is required only to fund its research, with administrative support, office supplies, and space provided by the University. Over the next few years, CTR is expected to fund itself entirely.
     "This is no small task," says Schafer.  "It's one thing to find funders interested in our science; it's quite another thing to find funders interested in putting a roof over our heads."
But they're confident.  "The University has made a significant investment in us," says Smith. "Now its up to us to make them look like smart investors."
     Interested alumni can learn more about the Center at the CTR website ( or contact them at 415-338-3620.

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Updated by Lannie Nguyen-Tang on August 3rd, 2000