Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Michael Keller

Office of Communication
August 15th, 2012 at 5:30PM

Michael is a research physical scientist with the Forest Service, but right now he’s working with International Programs on a project called, “Sustainable Landscapes” funded through the United States Agency for International Development. The Forest Service is looking at ways to minimize emissions of carbon dioxide from deforestation primarily in the tropics. About 18 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and forest degradation sources.

What is your role with the Sustainable Landscapes project?

My role is somewhat of a mix of an advisor, researcher, and a networker. I’m working with the Brazilian agricultural research agency, EMBRAPA, but not at figuring out how Brazil will develop policies to minimize deforestation, but rather working on the technical aspect of how much carbon can be saved by minimizing deforestation. We want to know how much carbon is out there in Brazil’s forests and how change through logging, fires, and other forms of degradation are going to reduce carbon stocks.

So, why Brazil, why not some other warm tropical climate country?

Well, it doesn’t have to be tropical because other areas have plenty of forests, but the reason the tropics is the focus is because that’s where large areas of forests are being cut down. Brazil has two contrasting characteristics. First, it’s the world’s largest tropical forest country containing about 25 percent of the world’s tropical forest, so any change in Brazil could be very important. Secondly, on average it is the world champion in deforestation for a couple of decades.

Now in recent years, Brazilian government action has resulted in considerable lower deforestation, and the Brazilians are concerned about maintaining those lower rates.

What makes you get up in the morning to go to work?

I’m just fascinated by forests and how they work and interact with the global atmosphere. You know I remember when I was working on my PhD years ago and I got up every morning, drove into the office, analyzed data, and wrote all day. Those were the happiest days of my career in some ways because I was discovering new things, even though they were small. I’m very curious, and I love new information.

People have described you as unique and interesting. Why do you think people would say that about you?

What makes me unique? You know, I’m not sure I am that unique. I’ve always looked for new opportunities and tried to do different things, been in a lot of different positions and places as a professional and I’m constantly moving. In some ways I’ve been a bit of a risk taker.

When you were growing up, did you aspire to work for the Forest Service or know what you wanted to be?

As a child, I grew up in the suburbs of New York City and my interaction with the forest was a patch of woods between my elementary school and house I used to walk through on my way home. It was a nice shady place to eat an ice cream cone. So I only got connected to the outdoors after I graduated high school, came back home for the holidays and talked with a friend of mine. We talked about what we wanted to be and neither of us had an idea; but she suggested that I look into taking a geology course next semester, so I could at least go on field trips and I did. I ended up becoming a geology major. It was like a light bulb went off because I did not take the introductory class; I went straight for the major course because I felt it would be more interesting. I took that risk and had a lot of catching up to do, but I really loved it. I thought that maybe I had found something I liked. That was just typical young arrogant me!

If you could meet or have lunch with any famous people from history, who would they be and why?

I would like to have lunch with Charles Darwin, certainly one of the most influential scientists ever and possibly one of the world’s greatest thinkers. Along those same lines, I think I would enjoy lunch with John von Neumann, who has been described as one of the true geniuses of the 20th Century. Other people that come to mind I have to say Joseph Heller, a novelist who I really appreciate.

Is there any characteristic about yourself you would like to change now that you are an adult?

Arrogance. I’ve seen this in a lot of my young colleagues and it’s probably a good quality in a young scientist. You think you can do things, make a difference and change the world. I certainly had that arrogance. I thought it was almost a necessary characteristic when you’re out there finding something that nobody’s ever found out before. I watch myself now.

How would you like to be remembered?

I think it is very important to be able to say that you made a difference to others. Hopefully, you helped other people achieve their goals, have a better life, career, and livelihood. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed is being able to work on a campus interacting with students as a teacher and mentor.