Stephen Porder

Office:      85 Waterman St – Room 208

Address:  Institute at Brown for Environment and Society
                 Box 1951
                 Brown University
                 Providence RI 02912
Phone:     401-863-6356


The questions that motivate me

My research lies at the intersection between ecology, geology, and biogeochemistry, and focuses primarily on understanding differences in nutrient cycling across tropical landscapes. The tropics are undergoing the fastest population growth and land use change on the planet, and as we add three billion people to the world (mainly in the tropics) over the coming century, we need to understand a great deal more about how these systems will respond to anthropogenic changes.   I have two main research foci: intact tropical forests and the consequences of their conversion to agriculture.  Intact tropical rainforests, the jewels of biological diversity on land,  are currently undergoing almost unimaginably fast destruction.  Despite the importance of these systems from a whole host of perspectives, we know relatively little about how tropical forests work biogeochemically, how nutrients and energy flow through them, and what constraints there are on plant growth, forest regeneration, and sustainable land conversion. In this context, I try to identify biogeochemical patterns across landscapes, to understand how these patterns may affect the function and services of ecosystems, and to consider how to incorporate this variation into models for predicting the response of ecosystems to anthropogenic changes.  To do this my lab combines field work (shooting leaves with a slingshot is a must-learn skill!), chemical and isotopic analyses, GIS and remote sensing.   We are also working to understand how agriculture, particularly industrial-scale, highly mechanized agriculture, will influence adjacent forests, and what happens in  remnant forests that are left in a matrix of farmland.

My path to ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry

I grew up in New York City, but developed a love for the outdoors in places like Vermont and New Brunswick, Canada.  After graduating from an international high school associated with the U.N., I went to Amherst College, where I majored in history and wrote my senior thesis on the history of Vermont during its fourteen years as an independent republic (1777-1791).  During that time, I got hooked by geology, because it taught me to look at the natural world in a fundamentally different way than I ever had.  After graduating, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, since I was really interested in many different things, and I took time off to teach skiing while I decided.  I went back to get a M.S. in geology from the University of Montana in 1997, and spent the next three years teaching earth science in New York.  Finally I came across what would become my true intellectual passion, understanding the way the earth’s living systems function, and in 2000 I went back to get my Ph.D. in Ecology from Stanford University, where I worked on landscape and ecosystem development in the Hawaiian Islands.  I hadn’t completely left my geologic roots, however, as my post-doc (also at Stanford) was in the Geological and Environmental Sciences Department integrating tectonic geomorphology into my understanding of how ecosystems develop.  I started at Brown in 2007, and am an associate professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and fellow in Brown’s Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Assistant Provost for Sustainability In July 2018 I began working in a new position, new for me and for Brown, as the Assistant Provost for Sustainability.  My research program remains as it was, but I am now also heavily involved in Brown’s efforts to reduce carbon and nutrient pollution, and other sustainability initiatives on campus.  In Feb 2019 Brown pledged to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, with a 75% reduction by 2025.  This plan includes using recycled bio-oil as a bridging fuel as we ready our buildings to be heated by renewably generated electricity. You can read more about those efforts here