Killam professor leads research team against mountain pine beetle

Killam professor Janice Cooke knows what makes trees tick.

Bev Betkowski - 20 October 2017

For almost 30 years, Janice Cooke has been figuring out what makes trees tick. As a kid growing up in a logging family around the forests of Prince George, B.C., she vowed she'd never go into this boom and bust industry, but back then, she also didn't know there was a scientific side to the business.

"I had no idea about forest biology and this idea of understanding how forests work and using that knowledge to help guide how we use them. Forestry isn't just about logging."

Today, the University of Alberta professor of forest genomics who heads a network of researchers looking for ways to stop the mountain pine beetle's destructive march across Canada is a 2017 recipient of a Killam Annual Professorship, recognizing her body of scholarly work.

Through TRIA-Net, a federally-funded collaboration of 17 researchers that Cooke assembled from scratch 10 years ago, she and her fellow scientists from across Canada are gradually learning more about how pines, the beetle and their fungi interact.

"We're tackling the problem in unconventional ways, and as a network, we've made some big advances," she said.

It was TRIA-Net researchers who raised the alarm in 2011 that the beetle, which decimated lodgepole pine forests in British Columbia, was also threatening the jackpine. The group also gained insight into how the trees and the beetle interact genetically, the patterns of the beetle's flight, and how drought weakens a tree's ability to fight the insect's toxin. The insights enabled the group to develop better risk models to predict where the mountain pine beetle could invade next.

All of the discoveries are helping government create policies that most efficiently target resources to battling the beetle, Cooke noted.

"We haven't been able to stop the mountain pine beetle in its tracks, but we are helping provincial agencies make science-informed decisions about where to put their resources. Alberta has a certain amount of money to spend every year on spread control, and there's not enough to actively control every single attacked tree, so tough decisions have to be made. We've been able to help them in making some of those decisions."

An associate professor in the Faculty of Science since 2005, Cooke also oversees a 10-person lab of undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who work on large-scale research projects supported by Genome Canada, collaborating with the Canadian Forest Service, various provincial governments and other universities worldwide.

She's grateful for the nod that the Killam award gives to the work of her lab, which happens to currently have an all-female staff.

"It helps us be recognized as female scientists in the international research community of forest genomics," said Cooke, who also received Killam funding as a long-ago PhD student at the U of A. "Forest genomics is not a big field of research, so recognition by something as prestigious as the Killam Awards really affirms the work we do."