UT Biogeography Professor Sally Horn takes long, arduous trips back through time—not in a space capsule but on a wobbly Huck Finn type of raft on remote Costa Rican lakes.
It all began 25 years ago with the chance to visit the Central American country. It’s the type of opportunity she now promotes for undergraduate and graduate students, area schoolteachers and the occasional tourist interested in learning.
Horn and her team search for evidence of the ways human history has affected tropical landscapes over the centuries. In particular they study pre-Columbian agriculture in the Americas, looking at how and when indigenous cultures cleared forests and cultivated corn and other crops. Often, that requires collecting lake sediment—hard work using simple tools.
"What I’m really interested in is disentangling climate change in the past from what humans were doing," she says. "That can give us important clues about the future."
Her selection as a Chancellor’s Professor—UT Knoxville’s highest permanent academic honor—is rooted in her enthusiastic teaching and more than 25 years of outstanding research.
The work is seldom glamorous. She recalls one particularly strenuous trip into the mountains of the Dominican Republic.
"We did a careful inventory, but brought the wrong size wrench," she said. "There was no way to call and just order the right tool so we spent countless hours over the next three or four days actually filing down the wrench until it fit the equipment."
Her ingenuity and hard work have paid off. She’s become fluent in Spanish, which in turn has helped her establish a solid network of contacts throughout Latin America.
"I’ve basically created a world of teaching and research that plays to what I like to do," she says.
At UT, she commits considerable energy to the National Science Foundation-funded GK-12 Earth Project, which sends graduate students to work with area schoolteachers.
"We’re trying to give teachers a view of science they probably otherwise wouldn’t get," she says.
Horn and her husband, Roger, have two college age children: Kevin, who studies art, music and environmental science at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., and Carolyn, who studies engineering and German at Rose-Hulman Institute in Terre Haute, Ind.
For more information on the Chancellor’s Professors program, visit http://chancellor.utk.edu/professors/.