Rachel Thiet, PhD

Antioch University
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Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we? – Henry David Thoreau, “Ktaddn”

I’ve been working my entire professional life for an opportunity to contribute to a community like Antioch University New England. I was lucky early in life to have wonderful high school and undergraduate teachers who were committed to teaching critical thinking skills, political awareness, and social responsibility. Fascinated with social science at a young age, I attended the Residential College at the University of Michigan, where I studied political economics and developed an interest in and concern about the impacts of globalization on women in the global economy.

Throughout undergraduate school and for several years afterward, I worked as a counselor and educator in a variety of adolescent treatment facilities and educational research foundations. I began a new chapter in my life by turning toward what had until then been a hobby: I began graduate school in ecology at Ohio State University in 1996, where I researched the impact of soil cyanobacteria and soil fungi on nitrogen cycling and plant invasiveness. For six years at Ohio State, I had an opportunity to teach several undergraduate courses, which allowed me to combine my interest in working with students with my passion for ecology.

During graduate school, I discovered that I was happiest and energized by my interactions with students and by communicating information that enhances their sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world. I love working through difficult ideas with my students, and I am enriched by the discoveries we make together.

Antioch, New England, is a perfect place for me to marry my interdisciplinary social science background with my disciplinary training in plant and soil ecology. I love filling an important niche at Antioch through my teaching and research in soil microbial ecology, soil nutrient cycling, and the impacts of soil organisms on long-term ecosystem sustainability.

rachel thiet

Core Faculty

Environmental Studies & Sustainability

  • Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Associate, Soil Microbial Ecology, University of New Hampshire
  • PhD, Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology (Soil Microbial Ecology), The Ohio State University
  • MS, Natural Resources (Wetlands Ecology), The Ohio State University
  • BA, Social Theory and Practice, University of Michigan

A great teacher is defined by the transformations she inspires in her students. How are students leaving my courses transformed by the experience?

As relevant environmental studies training requires the integration of disciplines, effective teaching integrates competent and creative content delivery, preparedness, generosity, emotional intelligence, and humility. An effective teacher knows her subject deeply and its broader connection to other disciplines, but remains a deep learner and models curiosity as a way of being. She shares intellectual space with her students generously and encourages each student to contribute her unique perspectives and experiences in ways that enrich learning. An effective teacher is a quiet but astute observer of social interaction and manages group dynamics subtly and effectively. She is commanding in her competence, preparedness, and organization, and shows implicit and explicit respect for her students.

Below are the specific outcomes and transformations I aim to see in students leaving my courses.

Students better understand connections among ecological and earth systems, and between natural and human systems.
I am a mechanistic ecologist and I encourage students to take their intellectual analyses deeper by thinking mechanistically. I challenge students to ask what underlies a process or problem or solution, and in this way to grow in their critical thinking skills and the depth of their analyses. I model this way of thinking in the way I deliver content: I don’t merely describe ; I also explain. For example, it’s not enough to describe to students that acid rain reduces forest productivity; I explain how this happens at various spatial and temporal scales, explaining the effect of H ions at clay exchange sites, the effect of Al toxicity and Ca deficiency in plant cells, and the cumulative effect of acidification on NPP at landscape scales. In this way, I model for students how to make explicit connections between above and below ground ecology, biogeochemistry, cellular biology, and geology. I provide readings and assignments that draw from all of these various disciplines, work across scale, and integrate these disciplines in mechanistic ways, and I expect students to make these connections in their class work and discussions.

Students have stronger scientific problem-solving skills and greater confidence in their scientific skills.
Students in my courses evaluate others’ primary research and conduct their own scientific research. Through conceptualizing, developing, conducting, and writing up and presenting a scientific project, students develop problem-solving, experimentation, and science communication skills. By going through the scientific process of discovery, students learn to appreciate the role of empirical science in understanding and solving complex environmental problems. For example, in my Soil Ecology, Wetland Ecology, and several of my field courses, students are required to develop, conduct, write up, and present a scientific study from start to finish. I explicitly require students to conceptualize their projects in the context of broader ecological relevance, so that their empirical science is always connected to larger ecological questions, problems, and solutions.

Students understand scientific questions and environmental problems as intimately connected to culture, politics, and socio-economics.
In my courses, students gain experience reading and critiquing ecology and earth science literature that couches scientific data within cultural, political, and socio-economic contexts. For example, in my Earth Systems and Climate Change course, student groups work on a semester-long State of the Systems research project in which they evaluate, synthesize, and present information about physical Earth systems processes, environmental data, global change processes and effects, and socio-economic adaptation and mitigation efforts in a particular geographic region of the world. In this project, students are challenged to integrate the physical, life, and social sciences, and I explicitly expect students to work across spatial and temporal scales. I model this interdisciplinarity in my own content delivery throughout the semester.

Students are more intellectually mature.
My courses transform immature thinkers who oversimplify complex ecological issues into nuanced thinkers who understand and account for complexity. I provide literature, scientific information, and opportunities for classroom and field discussions that help students to see that popular, trending viewpoints in our field are usually oversimplifications of complex, nuanced issues. By providing carefully chosen readings that offer alternative viewpoints and contradictory data, and by encouraging students to explore various viewpoints in regular class discussions, I challenge students to look more deeply at the causes they support and the viewpoints they hold. Typical discussions in any of my classes include using evidence in the literature to consider, for example, that local food does not always result in lower net carbon production; that genetically modified foods may mitigate hunger in some global regions; that biodiesel may be an unsustainable and dangerous response to peak oil; that earthworms actually harm some natural ecosystems; and that global environmental change may improve the standard of living in some human communities and enhance ecosystem functioning in some global biomes. Students leaving my courses are more sophisticated critical thinkers who can evaluate scientific data and consider unpopular and inconvenient viewpoints, so that they are less likely to regurgitate trendy sound bites and take oversimplified stances.

Students are more confident in their willingness to take risks.
Students make connections at their own rates. In my courses, no student question or contribution is stupid. Creating a feeling of emotional safety in my classroom is absolutely critical if students are to grow through exploring complex ideas, challenging assumptions, and pushing themselves into uncomfortable territory. Thus, I spend considerable time in the first weeks of any class creating an emotionally safe environment in which students feel free to explore their thinking and perceptions without fear of judgment or ridicule, and I maintain this emotional tenor during every single class meeting throughout every single semester. Creating and maintaining and emotionally safe classroom environment does not make a classroom soft; instead, it creates a social environment in which students feel free to challenge both themselves and one another, so they improve their analysis and communication skills. Throughout this process of creating a safe environment, I maintain strong leadership by earning trust and respect through my preparedness, competence, structure, and formal content delivery.

Students have a clearer sense of the strengths they bring to our field as environmental leaders.
By fostering in my courses an exploratory learning environment above all else, students are freer to explore and discover their respective strengths and weaknesses and their truest passions, and thus move closer to finding their most valuable contributions as leaders in our field. The ability to ask informed questions based on deep study and critical thinking, and to effect meaningful solutions through experimentation and taking risks, is vital for conceptualizing and effecting informed solutions to complex environmental problems. Simple thinkers and timid actors are not effective leaders; as a teacher, I seek to make students more intelligent and more courageous.

I am a coastal systems ecologist with broad interests in coastal restoration, sediment and soil ecology, plant ecology, biogeochemistry, aboveground-belowground interactions, and invertebrate ecology. Most of my research in terrestrial ecosystems is focused primarily on the interactions among plants, soil organisms, and invertebrates. My work in aquatic systems is focused on the effects of tidal restoration and active management of salt marshes on hydrophytic plant reestablishment, benthic invertebrates, and sediment biogeochemistry. Specifically, I have an active research program with the US National Park Service, Cape Cod National Seashore, where I have worked with my Cape Cod collaborators and Antioch students for nearly 15 years on the following projects:

  • The effects of tidal restoration on bivalve community composition, diversity, and distribution (long-term data set at East Harbor back-barrier salt marsh lagoon, N. Truro, MA)
  • The effects of mollusk reestablishment on sediment and water column biogeochemistry and macroalgal blooms (East Harbor)
  • Population structure, distribution, and spawning activity of American horseshoe crabs (East Harbor)
  • Population structure, distribution, and diet preferences of invasive green crabs (East Harbor)
  • Halophyte reestablishment and seed bank composition in tidally restricted, Phragmites-dominated salt marshes (Hatches Harbor salt marsh, Provincetown, MA)
  • The effects of algal, bryophytic, and lichen biomats on the establishment and productivity of sand dune plants (Province Lands sand dunes, Provincetown, MA)
  • Myrmecochory and seedling establishment of broom crowberry in restored coastal heathlands (Marconi Heathlands, Wellfleet, MA)

Additional research projects include:

  • The relationship between invasive earthworms, soil properties, and burrowing mammal diversity and density in New England forests (southern NH and VT)
  • The effects of oyster aquaculture on finfish species composition and diversity (Damariscotta River, ME)
  • The effects of educational whale watch programs on pro-environmental behavior (Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, MA)
  • The relationship between ant species diversity, wild lupine establishment, and endangered Karner blue butterfly abundance (Concord Pine Barrens, Concord, NH)
  • The effects of invasive fire ants on soil physical properties (Bar Harbor, ME)

Please see my list of publications for specific information about each of these projects, and contact me if you would like to get involved!

Annual Reports:

  • Smith, S.M., K. Chapman, K. Lee, M. Tyrrell, J. Wennemer, and R. Thiet. 2008. Annual Report on Estuarine Restoration at East Harbor (Truro, MA), Cape Cod National Seashore, 2008. NPS Technical Report, Cape Cod National Seashore, Wellfleet, MA.
  • Wennemer, J. and R. Thiet. 2007. Chapter 8: Shellfish. In: Portnoy, J., S.M. Smith, K. Lee, K. Chapman, M. Galvin, E. Gwilliam, P. Lyons, and C. Thornber. Annual Report on Estuarine Restoration at East Harbor (Truro, MA), Cape Cod National Seashore, 2007. NPS Technical Report, Cape Cod National Seashore, Wellfleet, MA.

Courses I teach in the Master’s Program at Antioch University New England include :

  • Introduction to Wetlands: Ecological Principles
  • Soil Ecology
  • Earth Systems and Climate Change
  • Community Ecology of New England
  • Evolutionary Ecology
  • Wetlands Ecology
  • Natural and Human Landscapes of Alaska, (field study trip in Alaska)
  • Research Seminar
  • Desert Ecology, (field studies trip in the Sonoran Desert)
  • Coastal Geoecology, (field studies trip on Cape Cod)
  • Tropical Ecology and Conservation, (field studies trip in Costa Rica)
  • Learning Domain Seminar II (PhD Program)
  • Comparative Ecological Analysis (PhD Program)
  • Conservation Biology

Courses I Teach Outside Antioch University New England:

  • Geoecology of New Hampshire Soils (Harris Center for Conservation Education, Hancock, NH)