Gail Wilson of Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management has been named an OSU Regents professor, the most prestigious title attainable by university faculty.
Regents professors are those who have made important contributions to their discipline and who are recognized nationally and internationally for their prominence in research, teaching, Extension, outreach or leadership. Wilson was awarded the title by the Oklahoma A&M Board of Regents on June 19.
“I’ve known Gail for more than 25 years and can attest to her being a top-notch, groundbreaking researcher who puts mentoring others – be they fellow professional scientists or graduate and undergraduate students – front and center,” said Nancy Johnson, director of Northern Arizona University’s School of Earth and Sustainability, herself a Regents professor.
Wilson was one of the first female field ecologists in the Great Plains region. Her research focuses on plant community ecology, plant-soil microbe interactions and plant-animal interactions and employs a combination of experimental field and greenhouse studies.
“Most people are not aware the biodiversity in one handful of soil is equivalent to the biological diversity in a rainforest,” Wilson said. “The biodiversity in soil declines, sometimes drastically, as soil degrades. The bottom line is we need to repair the soil if we are to promote the plants that grow in the soil and the animals that depend on the plants, and people who depend on both the plants and the animals. It’s all interconnected.”
Great Plains a great place for research
Approximately one-third of the world’s land surface is grasslands. Wilson said those who manage grasslands are key players in the sustainability of agricultural and land-use practices. For example, grazing animals have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with grasslands and affect carbon sequestration, thereby reducing the negative effects of climate variability. Research-based recommendations help take the guesswork out of land-use decisions, she said, and are applicable to grasslands beyond the Great Plains.
In 2017, Wilson initiated research collaboration with scientists at China Agriculture University. In 2018, she was offered a prestigious international adjunct faculty position at CAU to integrate grassland ecological research across continents.
“The head of this international program is one of the leading agricultural scientists in all of China,” said Jim Ansley, head of the OSU Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. “Dr. Wilson has a talent for developing research ideas and forming collaborative teams. Not only is Gail an excellent scientist, highly proficient in grant procurement and a prolific publisher in top journals, she knows how to make the work fun for all involved.”
An OSU faculty member since 2007, Wilson holds the university’s Sarkeys Distinguished Professorship in Rangeland Soil Ecology. She was her academic department’s graduate research coordinator from 2010-2017 and chaired the Ferguson College of Agriculture’s retention-promotion-tenure committee in 2019.
Prior to joining OSU Wilson was an assistant research professor with Kansas State University’s Division of Biology from 2003-2007 and a research associate from 1994-2003. She was the research coordinator of KSU’s Konza Prairie Biological Station from 1998-2002.
A demonstrable difference
“It’s so exciting to see Gail recognized for all her contributions in the science world, but also for her many altruistic contributions in terms of training new scientists,” said Karen Hickman, professor and director of environmental science for OSU’s Ferguson College of Agriculture. “Gail has always been an amazing adviser, especially to undergraduates. Gail’s positive effect on people, their careers and ecology in general reach far beyond OSU’s main Stillwater campus.”
Wilson has served as an associate editor of the Journal of Ecology since 2015 and as a national competitive grants program assessor for the Australian Research Council since 2013. She was on the editorial board of the Journal of Vegetation Science from 2013-2016. Wilson served as an Ecological Society of America mentor for students and early career professionals in 2018.
She has been honored many times over the years. Most recently, Wilson was recognized as her college’s Outstanding Graduate Student Mentor Award recipient in 2019, the university’s Riata Outstanding Faculty Award recipient in 2018, recipient of the OSU Phoenix Outstanding Faculty Award in 2017, winner of both the OSU Award of Excellence for Advisement and OSU Outstanding Graduate Service Award in 2016, and 2015 recipient of the OSU James A. Whatley Award for Meritorious Service in Agricultural Sciences.
“Science is investigation, and to see students discover they are detectives in the midst of a mystery is fun and fulfilling, for me as much as for them,” Wilson said. “There comes a point where a student realizes what is not known and commits to work through the process, and then understands the responsibilities of being the detective, of being the scientist.”
Wilson earned her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in geology from Pennsylvania’s Mercyhurst University in 1979 and then traveled across the state to earn her master’s degree in biology from Slippery Rock University in 1983. She earned her doctoral degree in agronomy at Kansas State University in 2003.
The OSU Department of Resource Ecology and Management is part of the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, which is comprised of the Ferguson College of Agriculture and the university’s two state agencies: OSU Extension and the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.