Among the wide array of books, stacked papers and coffee cups, Professor Harold Mooney’s office is littered with more prestigious awards than can be counted.
But above the professorial trinkets and the plethora of awards, it is the large map of the world covering the entire wall behind his desk that tells the most about Mooney, his work and the indirect path that he took to reach his current position as the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology and FSI Senior Fellow at Stanford.
Mooney credited early backpacking trips to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and working in nurseries in high school as the initial developments of his interest in ecosystems and the field of biology.
“I gained an appreciation for the variety of life on earth…all the pretty things,” he laughed. “Why we have so many things, how they interact and work and how we can understand where they are, where they grow. And now, more and more in recent years, concern for the loss of diversity and what we can do about stopping some of the adverse trends.”
Despite this appreciation, Mooney’s life plans did not immediately revolve around the life sciences, and the high school student body president instead accepted a scholarship to enter the University of California at Berkeley as a political science major. But when financial woes hit soon after, he was forced to drop out of school and get a job.
He accepted a position on a Norwegian freighter and embarked upon a journey down the west coast of the Americas, through the Straits of Magellan, along the east coast of South America, back through the Panama Canal and on to San Francisco.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, this seemingly odd job would provide the inspiration for his life’s work.
While traveling through the Panama Canal, Mooney read an article in Reader’s Digest that described working for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Exploration unit. This article, combined with the variety of natural wonders he saw in his trip throughout the Americas, fostered a deep interest in biology.
With that, both his political science degree and Berkeley career were things of the past. Upon returning to the States, Mooney decided to go back to school at his local community college, where a field course on ecology in the Rocky Mountains convinced him that his calling was to become an ecologist.
Mooney noted that his personal intellectual journey has led him to place a strong value on academic exploration.
“I think it’s really important to test the waters and to take a broad array of courses that first year,” he said. “ It just depends. Some people see something early in their careers and go on to it for the rest of their lives. For other people, it takes a while to find their passion.”
“That’s what you’re looking for, something you can become passionate about,” he added. “And you have to find that out by experimenting.”
Experimenting has paid off for Mooney, who has found a way to combine his early interest in political science with his aptitude in ecology to enact change in the world of environmental policy. For the past five years, he has been working with the United Nations to establish an intergovernmental process that follows biological diversity globally, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). Called the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the resolution has already been approved by 93 governments.
At Stanford, Mooney has enjoyed his role as both a teacher and researcher. His current courses include an introductory seminar called “Plants and Civilization” as well as a junior-senior course entitled “Ecosystems of California.”
Driven by a strong belief that the scientific community must improve its ability to share findings with the public at large, Mooney also works with several organizations that help scientists further their communication skills. At Stanford, he is deeply involved with a program that trains young scientists to communicate via television, write op-eds and provide effective Congressional testimony.
“I think all scientists have an obligation to convey their findings to a larger community than their immediate peers,” Mooney said, “and to use their understanding and knowledge about an important issue and make it available to a wider audience.”