This is the latest profile in a series highlighting some of the 124 faculty members who were hired during the 2011-2012 academic year
When John Withey joined the FIU family, he did so with more than just a love for research. He also brought with him a passion for mentoring and educational outreach.
An urban ecologist, Withey’s research focuses on the responses of birds and other terrestrial vertebrates to anthropogenic changes, including population dynamics, predator-prey interactions and habitat selection of birds in an urban environment.
“Urban ecology is important to understand where we live, work and play, especially the relationship of people to the environment,” Withey said. “If we better understand how human and natural systems interact, we can design our cities in a way that benefits both people and our native fauna and flora.”
A West Coast native, Withey was born in California and raised in Seattle. He credits his family’s interest in backpacking with instilling in him an appreciation for nature and the outdoors that still lives within him today.
“I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, I was exposed to the mountains and the ocean there,” Withey said. “I always liked biology because I like learning about the world around me. At some points, I thought I’d be a marine science or political science major. But I decided to stick with biology. I’ve always been drawn to that field and the diverse opportunities it provides.”
Withey earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Pomona College in California in 1991. After graduating, he landed a job as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Oregon investigating the habitats of spotted owls in Oregon. He also worked with the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico studying the Mexican spotted owl.
“I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but, at the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on,” Withey said. “I applied for a variety of field jobs and quickly learned to love the hands-on, field research component. These jobs really got me into learning more about avian ecology.”
In 1994, Withey enrolled in the U.S. Peace Corps and headed to Panama. As an environmental education trainer, he developed and led environmental education training workshops for teachers and created curriculum for K-6 schools.
“The Peace Corps was a departure for me because it was so different from the field work that I had been doing. It exposed me to environmental education and gave me the chance to teach in their schools,” Withey said. “I was able to contribute to the Peace Corps mission, but I also got to accomplish my own personal goals.”
After returning to the U.S. in 1996, Withey decided to pursue graduate study at the University of Washington. He returned to Panama in 1997 as an avian research assistant with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Withey earned a master’s degree in wildlife sciences in 2002 and a Ph.D. in forest resources in 2006 from the University of Washington. Afterward, he served in a variety of roles, including as an instructor and as a postdoctoral research associate at the university and at the Smithsonian institute.
Withey joined FIU’s Department of Biological Sciences in 2012 as an assistant professor. He teaches undergraduate courses in ecology and vertebrate zoology and is currently developing an urban ecology course.
Withey’s current project, Bird diversity and habitat relationships in a subtropical urban area, will build a network of sites across South Florida, including the FIU Nature Preserve, Tree Island Park and Preserve and Ron Ehmann Park. It will test how certain bird species respond to their hardwood hammock habitat, isolation and surrounding land use. The research will also look at how non-native species interact with, and possibly limit, these native birds.
“South Florida is an ideal place to study urban ecology. The three main global drivers of environmental change – land-use change, climate change and invasive species – are all here,” Withey said. “This project will help us understand the responses of native bird species to these phenomena so we can not only apply this knowledge to current environmental problems, but also understand what ecological value parks and reserves can and can’t provide these species.”
Withey’s project will also involve students across different levels, including high school students involved in the Fairchild Challenge’s “Schoolyard Birdwatch” program, undergraduate students taking ecology courses and graduate students interested in avian ecology.
“I think it’s great when students have a specific goal in mind, like those that know they absolutely want to go to medical school,” Withey said. “But I want to provide opportunities for those that are still exploring. I’d like to mentor them and hope they benefit from it, just as I did once.”
Other faculty members profiled in this series: