Ensuring engineered ecosystems are functional and lasting
May 30, 2017
Okanagan (Kelowna, B.C.)
PhD, McGill University (2000)
MSc, McGill University (1995)
“Students are at the core of our lab’s research projects.”
LAEL PARROTT IS AN EXPERT at striking a balance. A Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UBC’s Okanagan campus, she recognizes that compromise is necessary for progress. Her goal is lofty—to solve “wicked” environmental problems—but her means are modest and realistic.
“Growing up in Vancouver with beautiful, wild places around me, and watching them disappear motivated me towards conservation,” she says. “I decided that I wanted to contribute to improving our quality of life, while at the same time, reducing our environmental impact.”
She embarked on a path of studying agricultural engineering, and then specialized in ecological engineering.
When Parrott started her studies, she realized there wasn’t much information about ecosystem design. New ecosystem design begins with a blank slate similar to a child’s sandbox project: soil, water, plants, and animals are added sequentially. Distinct from child’s play though is the complexity of ensuring an engineered ecosystem is functional and lasting.
“What I learned during my studies and now put into practice is that these systems are complex and cannot be ‘engineered’ in a traditional sense,” she says. “I had a desire to develop new approaches to better understand and describe how all the different parts and processes of an ecosystem are interconnected.”
Parrott is developing new quantitative tools and computational models that take into account the complexity of real ecosystems and landscapes. These models are then used to inform environmental management and conservation organizations. Called complex systems management, this approach involves the input from many areas of research including geography, ecology, engineering, biology and economics, to name a few.
“By working together our whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” says Parrott, who collaborates with individuals from all of these fields.
MIXING WHALES AND TANKERS
One project was centred in the St. Lawrence estuary. The waterway is an essential foraging ground for migratory whales and a mating area for the critically endangered beluga whale. The St. Lawrence also supports a whale-watching industry, and is a main thoroughfare for large shipping vessels.
Parrott was asked to consult on how to best equalize the demand for water space both for the seafarers and the behemoths of the sea.
“I’ve learned to move away from the command-and-control approach to management and towards recognizing the system is dynamic and changing and may have multiple players.”
Parrott collaborated with Parks Canada and Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans to generate quantitative support to help with the decision-making process, including the pros and cons of different management actions.
In the end, compromises were reached: the whale-watching industry agreed to new regulations and the shipping trade agreed to voluntary reductions in speed limits for vessels. The whales, of course, decided to stay and display their aquatic prowess.
“In order to find sustainable solutions, conciliations like this are necessary,” says Parrott.
FROM MONTREAL TO THE MONASHEE MOUNTAINS
Parrott works on similar projects in the Okanagan Valley, where she moved two years ago. “I came to UBC because sustainability and environmental research is a strategic priority of the campus. UBC is a world-leader in this area.”
Living in BC has exactly the right combination for Parrott, who incorporates the outdoor environment in and out of class.
“The UBC Okanagan campus is exceptional because it has easy accessibility to different environments for teaching and research. Urban, agriculture, and aquatic systems are all local. This is an incredible asset.”
Parrott adds that this accessibility is an under-advertised opportunity for students, especially undergraduates. “The students can go out and see the ecosystems they’re studying. It’s not just textbook knowledge.”
The ever-environmentally conscious professor also bikes to work. The benefit of having a car-free commute is obvious for Parrott, who enjoys the thrill of cruising past the local traffic.
The move to UBC Okanagan is helping to fulfil Parrott’s conservation goal.
“We have a unique opportunity in the Okanagan because currently the landscape is not dominated by human infrastructure. This is unlike many cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver. We have the opportunity to develop differently, and maybe set an example for other places.”
Compromise is especially relevant in the Okanagan Valley, where there is a balance between meeting land development pressures, maintaining the agricultural land base, and supporting the natural ecosystems essential for quality of life and well-being.
Parrott terms these as “wicked” problems in which there is no single resolution that satisfies the involved parties. She works extensively with urban, government, and environmental planners and ecologists to seek sustainable solutions.
“This process is about making informed decisions and looking at the different trade-offs,” she says. “It is essential that we consider the impact of development on wildlife corridors, water quality, and biodiversity so that our quality of life can be maintained.”
Parrott relies on the input from her UBC students and colleagues. “The size of the campus facilitates interdisciplinary work. I’m always looking at the social and environmental aspects of a problem. Here, I can easily access the people who complement my expertise.”
She adds that it has been easy to recruit excellent graduate and post-doctoral students to her lab, the Complex Environmental Systems Laboratory. This, she says, is essential for top-notch work. “Students are at the core of our lab’s research projects.”
She works collaboratively with non-academic partners and it is a huge benefit for the students.
“It brings a real-world perspective to their academic experience.”
ADVANCING RESEARCH IN CONSERVATION AND ECOLOGY
Parrott has also been instrumental in the formation of the Okanagan Institute for Biodiversity, Resilience, and Ecosystem Services (BRAES), which she currently directs.
BRAES is a consortium of UBC Okanagan faculty members, graduate and post-doctoral students, collaborators, and partner organizations that works together to advance research and teaching in conservation and ecology.
“Together,” Parrott says, “we work on problems related to environmental sustainability, conservation, ecology, and resource management.”
In collaboration with more than 50 partner organizations, including government ministries and non-government organizations, the goal of BRAES is to increase scientific understanding of ecological systems from genetics to landscape scales and to inform management and planning decisions that promote environmental sustainability.
The institute’s strength is its multidisciplinary focus, with members from biology, mathematics and statistics, earth and environmental sciences, physical geography, economy, and creative arts departments.
BRAES partnerships within the University and with government, non-government, community, and international organizations include activities such as joint research, funding agreements, student supervision, dissemination or application of research.
Story by Christine Zeindler