Meet Our Newest University Cup Recipient

Ellen Macdonald, professor of forest ecology and chair of renewable resources, is the 2019 recipient of the highest faculty honour.

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Ellen Macdonald, Professor (Forest Ecology) & Chair of Renewable Resources | Photo: Richard Siemens

Ellen Macdonald, professor of forest ecology and chair of renewable resources, laughs easily and often. It's the kind of laugh that might set a classroom of students at ease. An internationally respected scholar with a significant impact on the field of forest science, Ellen receives equal praise for her ability to enable the best in her students - many of whom are now successful scientists and academics themselves. Her teaching, research and service at the U of A and in the broader community have earned her the university's highest honour for faculty members.

"I don't think I even knew ecology was a thing in high school," she admits. "But I took an intro ecology class as an undergrad and thought, this is the biology for me - because it's about real things in the real world. It's about things that matter." Reflecting on some of the aspirations she held as an 18-year old starting into plant ecology, she laughs. Yet in the years since, Ellen has shifted the way we manage and protect forests in regions around the globe. Nor would it be an overstatement to say that she's helped shape the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences that we know today.

Ellen came to the U of A on a post-doctoral fellowship in Forest Science in the late 1980s - about the time that the Spotted Owl was coming to symbolize new debates erupting over forest management and conservation. "We were entering a time period with a lot of questions about forestry - sustainability, how we were managing our forests, the diversity of values that we wanted from our forests - wildlife, biodiversity, social and aesthetic issues - all that was just starting to bubble up," she explains. Industry and governments were both looking for better information and research findings to guide their forest policies and practices, and strike the right balance between competing interests. Ellen went to work.

"Basic science is good, but it wasn't what I wanted to do," she reflects. "I wanted to do research that would make a difference on the ground - to our ecosystems, biodiversity and landscapes." She spent much of the next decade working with different levels of government, relevant industries, and teams of academics to shape the way we manage, conserve, and protect forests. Her work on riparian buffer strips - narrow forested sections that edge bodies of water - and on partial harvesting (as opposed to clear-cutting) to preserve forest ecosystems throughout the '90s took Ellen to the leading edge of forest management and conservation. She remains there today, with her research covering everything from forest regeneration in the wake of mountain pine beetles to the beneficial impacts of deadwood on forest conservation strategies.

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At the same time that burgeoning interest in forest management was shaping Ellen's early research career, it was also drawing the attention of students. "We had this idea that environment programs were going to be really important to students, and important to society," she recalls. ALES was still called the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry when Ellen and her colleagues set about establishing a bachelor's degree in Environmental & Conservation Sciences - one of the first applied environment programs in Canada. They launched the degree without hiring any new faculty members - a fact she laughs about with some disbelief today - and within three years registration jumped to 500 students annually. "I don't think we actually anticipated how big the demand would be," she smiles. Twenty-five years later, the foundational elements of the program are still in place - its applied nature, balance of natural and social sciences, and focus on experiential learning - and an early graduate of the program recently joined Ellen's department as a new faculty member. "That was really a highlight," she says. "I'm proud of the role that I played in getting that program up and going."

Ellen is as passionate about teaching as she is about her research and work in the faculty. Today, Ellen is known for her substantial publications on edge effects (the ecological impacts of a forest's edges) in boreal forests - which she'll proudly tell you was all prompted by a student's question during one of her courses. "A student will ask you a question and you say to them, 'I don't know - let's find out!'" she laughs. To hear her tell it, you get the impression that Ellen has never failed to take up a student's question seriously and work with them towards an answer - especially if it's going to better their experience. Perhaps it stems from the role she sees young forest scholars filling in the future: "Forests are critical to climate change, and as storehouses of carbon - critical for aesthetic and spiritual reasons - critical for timber and non-timber products, for wildlife and biodiversity. We've come a long way in terms of appreciating that diversity of values, and figuring out how we can sustain them," she explains. "But we continue to need research, and educated people to address those problems. It's not getting any easier."

On January 22, 2020 Ellen received the University Cup - the highest honour awarded to faculty members at the University of Alberta. "What's meaningful to me is that it goes across teaching, research and service - it's for people that have contributed across the board. It's a huge, huge honour," she says. Then, she laughs. "I didn't think I would win!"

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