Ecologist Siobhan Fennessy seeks to save Ohio's wetlands

A nice paradox can be glimpsed in Siobhan Fennessy's research, career, and even her home: she's a romantic in the first instance and a pragmatist on the rebound.

An assistant professor of biology specializing in botany and ecosystem ecology at Kenyon, Fennessy has made it her mission to save what remains of Ohio's decimated wetlands, like a female knight rescuing fens in distress. At first, she says, "I was, like a lot of scientists, somewhat naive about the ferocity with which people will fight" environmental crusaders who would encroach on their property rights. During five years working at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), though, she gained an inside understanding of public policy and laws restricting the rescue effort. "It's hopeless, politically and economically, to just try and protect the wetlands. Often we know a lot about what is needed ecologically, but putting that in place is just impossible," she says.

At the Ohio EPA, Fennessy developed a program for restoring and replacing wetlands lost to property development, which has since become a model for other states. Ohio has lost 90 percent of its wetlands, along with the biological diversity those sites used to support.

"A lot of those plant species are on the threatened and endangered species list, so we had to come up with ways to improve the situation that could actually be put into effect. That's a very challenging and interesting task, because it's so subjective and there are all kinds of constituencies out there trying to protect their bit of turf." It's also a challenge to gain public support for endangered plants. People rally to rescue "big, glamorous animals--save the bald eagle, save the cheetah, sure. But save the liverworts? No."

Co-author of Wetland Plants: Biology and Ecology, a reference work for advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals, Fennessy says the lessons she learned at EPA still shape her research interests. "I find most satisfying those projects that I know can have some real-world applications pretty quickly," she says. "Restoration ecology is this exciting blend of basic research and applied work. Research discovers how ecosystems work, so we can figure out how to recreate them and put them back on the landscape, and so do some real environmental good."

Fennessy mentored four Summer Science scholars last year, two of whom are doing honors work with her this year, pursuing research projects that contribute to her overall vision for wetlands restoration ecology. She and senior Abby Rokosch traveled this fall to a conference at the University of Sheffield, England, to present the results of their summer research. Caught in London on September 11, 2001, with all flights to the United States canceled, they were delayed by several days in returning to Gambier.

Prior to her stint with the EPA, Fennessy held what many would consider a dream job. With a freshly minted doctorate from Ohio State University, where she also earned her bachelor's degree, she landed a position at University College, London, with a simultaneous research appointment at a biology station in Provence. Dividing her time between the heady excitement of London and the glorious golden landscapes of southern France, she soaked up an intoxicating blend of British and Gallic culture, all the while doing work impressive enough that both the university and the biology station urged her to stay on.

But family reasons compelled Fennessy and her husband, photographer Ted Rice, to return to central Ohio, so Fennessy revised her career plans. "It was a wonderful job, but you have to do what's best for the family," she notes pragmatically. She hopes in the future to spend a sabbatical year back in London and Provence. Meanwhile, she cherishes memories of going on pink flamingo-banding expeditions in the Camargue, south of Arles.

Born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, Fennessy considers Columbus her hometown. Her husband grew up in Gambier, the son of Chuck Rice, professor emeritus of psychology, and Jo Rice, a Kenyon graduate who formerly held several administrative positions at the College. It was just coincidence, says Fennessy, that when she decided to leave the EPA for an academic position, she ended up at Kenyon.

A couple of years ago, Fennessy and Rice bought "a gigantic, semi-dilapidated, overwhelming (as it turned out) kind of house" on Main Street in Mount Vernon. This dream house demanded endless upkeep and was a monster to heat. Cutting their losses, they traded in the "castle" for a nice old house on Vine Street, a neighborhood with more children and less traffic. It's a better environment for their own kids, four-year-old Thomas, who attends the Gazebo School, and Nora, a second-grader at Wiggin Street School, in whose classroom Fennessy volunteers weekly.

At the moment, Fennessy has a grant to compare natural wetlands with restored ones, in terms of ecosystem processes as well as biological diversity. "The big assumption has been that you're getting ecologically a fair trade," she says, "but more and more research is showing you're not."

As she and her students collect samples from a wetland up on Bishop's Backbone, Fennessy dreams big, then does what can be done.

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