Professor Katherine Willis

Position: Head of the Lab
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Selected Projects

Academic Profile

Kathy Willis holds the Tasso Leventis Chair of Biodiversity, is Associate Director of the Biodiversity Institute (BIO) in the Zoology Department and a Professorial Fellow at Merton College. She gained her first degree in Geography and Environmental Science from the University of Southampton, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in Plant Sciences. In her early postdoctoral career, Prof. Willis held a Selwyn College Research Fellowship and then a NERC Postdoctoral Fellowship in the department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge. This was followed by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship in the Godwin Institute for Quaternary Research, University of Cambridge. Kathy moved to a University Lectureship in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford in 1999 where she established the Oxford Long-term Ecology Laboratory in 2002 and was made a Professor of Long-term Ecology in 2008. Kathy Willis was appointed first Director of the James Martin Biodiversity Institute in Zoology in October 2010.

In addition to her position in Oxford, Professor Willis is an adjunct Professor (Professor II) in the Department of Biology, University of Bergen, Norway. She is also a trustee of WWF-UK, on the panel of advisers for Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, a trustee of the Percy Sladen Memorial Fund, an International Member on the Swedish Research Council’s FORMAS evaluation panel, and a College Member of NERC. She has recently been elected to the position of Director-at-Large of the International Biogeography Society.

She was awarded the Lyell Fund for 2008 by the Geological Society of London, elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geological Society in 2009 and was made a Foreign Member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters in 2010.

In 2013 she was appointed director of science at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

Current Research

Research interests focus on the relationship between long-term (> 50 years) ecosystem dynamics and environmental change. Why do we need long-term records? One of the barriers to gaining a proper understanding of future environment/ecosystem interactions is that the majority of scientific studies are based on short-term datasets rarely spanning more than 40-50 years. Given that the average generation time of many larger organisms (e.g. trees, large mammals) often exceed this value, there is little scope in short-term records for example, in recording natural variability through time, or rates of migration in response to climate change. In addition, using such short-term records presents a very static viewpoint of biodiversity where the present is regarded as the norm and a ‘stable’ ecosystem that must be maintained, protected and/or restored. Work in the Long-term Ecology laboratory therefore focuses on reconstructing responses of ecosystems (species, families, communities, landscapes) to environmental change (e.g. climate change, human impact, sea-level rise) on timescales ranging from tens to millions of years. Recent research has also focussed on the applied use of long-term records in restoration ecology and biodiversity conservation. Full details of on-going research projects can be found on the Oxford Long-Term Ecology Laboratory research page.

Selected Publications