Q & A with Dr. Lisa Ellsworth

I started a quarterly newsletter in my role as the Communications Officer of Oregon State University Women in Science. Each quarter, we feature a leading Oregon State University woman in science. In April, we featured Dr. Lisa Ellsworth. Below is my Q & A with her.

The post was also published on the COMPASS blog here.

COMPASS blog_Ellsworth_Newsletter_WiS_Mar 2017-Lisa

Dr. Lisa Ellsworth is an Assistant Professor, Senior Research, at Oregon State University in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. She is also a new Wilburforce Fellow in Conservation Science – a year-long program providing leadership and science communication training to scientists. Lisa does not hail originally from Corvallis, but has spent a lot of time there as an undergraduate student, master’s student, and now professor. I sat down with Lisa recently to hear more about how she came into science and what she’s most excited about looking forward.

Why science?

For me, it was originally less about wanting to be a scientist, and far more a complete fascination with wildland fire. I fought fire in the summers during my undergraduate program, and that is what got me absolutely addicted to fire as an ecosystem process. My turn towards fire science rather than fire management came after seeing how tough it was for women in the fire management world. I saw overt sexual harassment and gender bias, and knew that I was never going to be respected in a way that my male colleagues were. I then pursued a master’s degree examining fire ecology in the sagebrush steppe of northern California at Lava Beds National Monument, and found my place in fire research, and at the same time realized the great need, and great opportunity for a career’s worth of work on fire in the sagebrush steppe.

COMPASS blog_Ellsworth_Newsletter_WiS_Mar 2017-sagebrush post fiare
Sagebrush steppe is a type of shrubland usually dominated by sagebrush, with increases in herbaceous grasses and forbs and reductions in shrubs following wildfire. This ecosystem is found in the Intermountain West of the United States.

What type of scientist are you?

 I alternately call myself a rangeland ecologist, fire ecologist, and habitat ecologist, and my work really is at the intersection of these fields. My primary research questions are about the synergistic influences of fire and other disturbances (invasive species, domestic grazing, fire suppression, and land cover change) on fire behavior, landscape-level land cover change, and impacts to wildlife species and associated ecosystems, with a particular focus on long-term temporal scales.

During my master’s research, I started to realize how understudied and under-appreciated that sagebrush steppe ecosystems were, and how very fragile as well. Ecologically, these ecosystems are very dry, and take a long time to recover from disturbance, but provide complex and critical habitat for a large suite of wildlife. One of these species – the greater sage-grouse – has captured a lot of attention lately, and concerns for the required habitat for this ground-nesting species has driven a lot of the current policy around rangeland fire. We are in a space where we are suppressing all rangeland fire to protect the late-successional habitat that sage grouse require. In doing so, we’ve moved away from appreciating fire as a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Much of the required late-successional sagebrush steppe has been lost, and the patches remaining are vulnerable to intersecting threats including invasive species, altered disturbance regimes, overgrazing, and a legacy of land use change. The invasive species component is particularly problematic and complex in this ecosystem because these annual grass species outcompete native grasses, and form a more flammable and more continuous fuel source – leading to larger and more frequent fires than what we saw historically.

Even though there are enormous ecological challenges in sagebrush steppe ecosystems, they pale in comparison to the social and economic challenges of the ecosystem. I’ve often rattled off the biological threats to the area – invasive species, altered fire regimes, conifer encroachment – but I’ve come to realize that the bigger threats to the ecosystem involve the human components. There is a polarization of viewpoints about rangeland management with little middle-ground or cooperation among stakeholder groups. Yes, we have problems with invasive species and changing fire regimes, but much more than that we have problems with respect and communication. I firmly believe that we need to facilitate a willingness to have all groups of stakeholders at one table, to have conversations about how to value each other’s perspectives, in order to come up with comprehensive solutions to conserve, manage, and restore sagebrush steppe ecosystems.

What are your goals as a Wilburforce Fellow?

I see two huge benefits of the Wilburforce Fellowship program. One is the science communication training – few scientists are good at communicating the implications of their work for a diverse audience. My decision to apply for this program came out of a tumultuous professional time when I was really questioning my place in science. A year ago I came very close to walking away because of the barriers I felt as a first-generation scientist, and even more-so as a female scientist in a very male dominated, applied science field. The barriers felt insurmountable, largely due to problems with communication across various perspectives. During this time, I became aware of the Wilburforce Fellowship program, and was drawn to it because I could see how the communication training and coaching part of the program could really help scientists to be part of the solution in facilitating difficult conversations. The other benefit I see is in the fellowship network of like-minded scientists interested in conservation impacts on the ground – scientists willing to have difficult conversations about how to communicate science. Together we can start tackling the wicked problems in conservation science.

My goal for the fellowship program is to learn ways to bring different, and sometimes opposing, value systems to the table to come up with solutions that can result in sustainability, not just of the ecological systems but of the holistic, social and economic structure of rangeland ecosystems. There are a lot of dominant, but not at all diverse voices in range management and range ecology as well as in fire management and fire science. There are more varied perspectives that we need at the table to devise a better set of solutions. It is time to facilitate those pathways, from hiring students and employees from groups traditionally underrepresented in this work to facilitating the stage for existing different, varied voices in range and fire science.

Do you have one piece of wisdom to share for women in science?

It feels a bit cliché to say this, but I truly hope that you each know how valuable your voice, your perspective is to your field. Believe that your voice is valuable, that science will be better because of your contributions, and that the future path for women in science will be easier because of your persistence.

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