'She was fearless': Grad's dogged fight against mountain pine beetle inspires a new generation of students

A scholarship set up in memory of Anina Hundsdoerfer ensures her vital work lives on at UAlberta

Niall McKenna and Sheila Graham, '98 BA, - 20 August 2019

Anina Hundsdoerfer was a passionate and effective force in Alberta's response to the mountain pine beetle. Three grad students working in forest health have already received the memorial scholarship that bears her name.

Shiyang Zhao, '19 PhD, and Anina Hundsdoerfer, '06 MSc, never met. But they share bonds. Both moved from overseas to study Canada's lush forests as University of Alberta grad students. Both became deeply concerned about the devastation wrought by the mountain pine beetle. Both took action.

Forestry 50

For half a century, the U of A has offered one of the few forestry undergraduate programs in Canada. The year 2020 marks 50 years of the program - a chance to reconnect and celebrate.

The beetles, which have destroyed more than 19 million hectares of forest in British Columbia and Alberta in outbreaks since the 1990s, feast on and lay eggs in pine trees, stifling the trees' ability to nourish and defend themselves. Affected trees usually die within a month.

In 2006, the year Hundsdoerfer graduated, mountain pine beetles had invaded Alberta from their native forests in British Columbia. Scientists, industry and communities that rely on trees became gravely worried about the advancing destruction the beetles brought and the threat that the insects will move further eastward.

Hundsdoerfer was a key figure in Alberta's response to the threat. She died in 2014, but thanks to a scholarship in her name established by family, friends and former colleagues, the German-born U of A grad's work lives on through students like Zhao, who received the award in 2018.

"I'm very grateful for this gift," says Zhao, who moved from China and is one of a growing number of scientists figuring out how to protect forests from the destructive pine beetle.

After graduating, Hundsdoerfer worked as a forest entomologist with the Government of Alberta and specialized in pine beetle response. Hundsdoerfer was instrumental in convincing officials to take the threat seriously, says U of A biology professor Janice Cooke. Cooke led the team of researchers that worked with industry and government to launch Alberta's response.

"She was fearless," says Cooke. "Anina worked to understand the information and would take the data to the decision-makers with a decisive, 'Here's the proof.' "

Hundsdoerfer played a significant role in making sure plans were developed, funded and implemented to protect Alberta forests, Cooke says. Hundsdoerfer also co-developed the method to count pine beetles each spring - a crucial step to help officials decide where and how to stop the pest.

As the provincial government stepped up its response and research, friend and former colleague, Seena Handel, '00 BSc(Forest), said Hundsdoerfer was effective in getting academics, government and industry to co-ordinate the response to stop the pest.

"She had credibility in the different circles and could translate between those with different interests and values. She co-ordinated all of the research efforts that got us where we are today," Handel says. "In the early days, if you saw a presentation on anything to do with the mountain pine beetle, her work would have been a significant component of it."

Handel says Hundsdoerfer's death wasn't just the loss of a colleague but the loss of a friend to many in Alberta's forestry community. "The loss was difficult to comprehend. There was an outpouring from a large group of people wanting to do something."

Cooke saw this outpouring as an opportunity to create a legacy for Hundsdoerfer and her work. She collaborated with colleagues and Hundsdoerfer's family to set up an award for graduate students studying forest conservation. Handel is one of the monthly donors to the Anina Hundsdoerfer Memorial Graduate Scholarship.

"Anina was the right person in the right place at the right time," says Nadir Erbilgin, a professor in forest entomology and chemical ecology at the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. "It is so important for us to remember her work and her dedication to understand how to protect our valuable forests against the mountain pine beetle."

Fund the Fight

Past recipients of Anina Hundsdoerfer Memorial Graduate Scholarship continue the battle against invasive species

Caitlin Mader, '12 BSc(Spec), '18 MSc (2017 recipient): Taking her research into invasive species management in forests onto the water as coordinator of LakeWatch, a volunteer-based, Alberta-wide water-quality monitoring program

Rachel Hillabrand, '19 PhD (2016 recipient): Studying physiology of trees, especially those under stress, as a post-doctoral fellow with the U of A's Landhäusser Research Group

The Hundsdoerfer scholarship has been awarded to three students since 2016. Zhao, the latest recipient, says the gift helped her focus on her thesis, which was to understand the defense mechanisms of trees that somehow survive pine beetle attacks. "The lodgepole pine trees emit resins when the beetle breaks the bark," Zhao says. "Sometimes the resins trap the beetle, sometimes they push the invader away."

Understanding the natural defences of pine trees is a key piece in determining how to curb the economic, social and environmental impacts of the mountain pine beetle.

Now that Zhao has graduated, she intends to continue her research by determining how pine trees might pass on their natural defences against pine beetles to the next generation. Zhao's work could help experts figure out the best way to defend Alberta forests from one of their biggest threats.

It's a comfort to those who loved, worked with and respected Hundsdoerfer to know that her life inspires a new generation of grad students who, like Zhao, push for breakthroughs to stem the destructive path of the mountain pine beetle.