Dr. Mark Harmon, professor and Richardson Chair of Forest Science at OSU, remembers the time when he first became interested in science. “As a boy, I got interested in decomposition while digging through our compost pile for worms to use for fishing bait! I originally wanted to study fish, but decided to look at forests instead and keep my interest in fish as a hobby.”
Upon graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts with a B.A. in ecology, Harmon went on to earn his Master’s at the University of Tennessee. While working at Glacier National Park, decomposition once again sparked his interest. “It occurred to me that to understand the fuels I was studying, I needed to understand decomposition,” he says. “I then worked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a range of projects involving fish, wild boar, and the effects of fires on forests. It was the latter that I found most rewarding, and that’s why I obtained a Master’s on that topic.”
Harmon came to Oregon State to earn a PhD in botany. He became interested in the research projects being conducted by the group of researchers working at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest while working in the Botany Department as a graduate student. Eventually, he was given opportunity to work with the group studying decomposition, which is currently his primary research field. “I am mostly known for my work on decomposition of wood,” says Harmon. “But I also continue to study how forests grow and die, particularly in stands with minimal management. These two topics are linked in my studies of carbon dynamics of forests and I use a lot of modeling to achieve that blending.”
Additionally, Harmon is involved in applications of his work in data modeling. “I am very interested in the topic of scaling, which is a way in which we can take information for one time period or spatial extent and use it at another.”
In the future, Harmon’s research will involve analyzing data from decomposition projects that have taken place over the past 20 years. Says Harmon, “In addition to studying how wood disappears, we want to understand how nutrients such as nitrogen are recycled during this process.”
His overarching goal is to eventually combine carbon theory, mathematics, modeling, and empirical studies into an integrated theory he dubs the “Carbon Knowledge System.” This system would relate all these forms of knowledge into an understandable and integrated whole. “Right now we have a lot of unrelated factoids and theory which is confusing to even the experts” expanded Harmon.
“What I enjoy most about my job is interacting with students and engaging them to think about the bigger picture concerning the fields I study,” says Harmon. “The management of carbon in forests is becoming an important topic globally and regionally within the Pacific Northwest. I think that understanding the processes controlling the carbon cycle and how various interactions control uptake or release of this element will be very important for us in the next few decades.”
Bio of Mark Harmon written by Bryan Bernart, Editorial Assistant, Forestry Communications Group, College of Forestry