Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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Smithsonian honors
STRI’s Joe Wright

June 29, 2023

Text by Vanessa Crooks

Plant ecologist S. Joseph Wright received an award for his illustrious career at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in Panama.

On June 6th at the Meyer Auditorium of the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch and Under Secretary for Science and Research Ellen Stofan presented the 2022 Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar in the Sciences Award to Joseph Wright, for almost forty years of dedication and contributions to science through his work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Dr. Wright studies plant biology in tropical forests, specializing in experimental and comparative studies over natural and artificial gradients, long-term observational studies, and meteorological monitoring.

Before he presented his acceptance lecture, “The Global Importance of Tropical Forests”, Dr. Wright began by acknowledging the team who have been working with him for decades, collecting the data that make his discoveries possible. “Without them, the success that I’ve had would never have happened,” he said, thanking research managers and technicians Osvaldo Calderón, Milton García, Mirna Samaniego, Andrés Hernández, Omar Hernández and Elina Gómez.

His talk provided an overview of tropical climate, why most biodiversity is found in the tropics, why tropical forests have a remarkable ability to adapt to the changing climate, and why this makes them so important in the global carbon cycle.

At the end, Dr. Wright answered a few questions from the audience like: what advice would he give to young scientists.

“You need to learn a lot of statistics, you need to be very computer-savvy, and you have to want to make a difference,” he said. “But if you’re from the tropics, you have a huge advantage, because the people who know the trees and the animals and how they interact, and can combine that knowledge with the computer and statistical knowledge, these are the ones who are going to be very successful.”

From left to right: Under Secretary for Science and Research Ellen Stofan, curator of the Musical Instruments collection at the National Museum of American History Kenneth Slowik, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch, STRI staff scientist S. Joseph Wright, and members of the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar selection committee, Michael Neufeld, Senior Curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Paula Johnson, Curator at the National Museum of American History, and Igor Krupnik, Chair of Anthropology and Curator at the National Museum of Natural History. Credit: Jennifer E. Berry, Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

Kenneth Slowik, curator of the Musical Instruments collection at the National Museum of American History, spoke at the beginning of the ceremony on behalf of the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar selection committee. “This award highlights the Smithsonian’s commitment to knowledge; knowledge derived through historical inquiry, scientific method, rigorous analysis and peer review, and the synthesis that can result from the broad understanding of a particular culture or period,” he said, adding that the award is given to scholars with outstanding and sustained achievements in research, commitment to the Smithsonian, and an ability to communicate with a broad and diverse audience.

Secretary Bunch introduced Dr. Wright before presenting the award to him. “What Dr Wright’s work has done is crucial to help not just to understand and protect tropical forests but is really a great service to the world. And it’s a great example of what is the strength of what the Smithsonian can do,” he stated. “When I had the pleasure of visiting STRI last year, I was so struck by the amazing work that Dr. Wright and his colleagues are doing, so struck by how they are at the cutting edge of helping us understand why it is so crucial to grapple with climate change, why it is so crucial to have the science that we can count on.”

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