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  • Writer's pictureLab Notes

Lab Notes on: Dr. Nancy Shackelford

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Art by Mika

Dr. Nancy Shackleford obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Victoria, where she focused on a more theoretical approach to looking at ecosystems, especially looking at how ecosystems respond to more extreme events that will become more frequent with climate change. Later on, a world leader in restoration work and ecological theory, Dr. Katharine Suding, recruited Dr. Shackleford, offering her a postdoctoral position in which she would put focus on restoration work. From there on, restoration has become a centerpiece of Dr. Shackleford’s research.

Today, Dr. Shackleford is the academic director of the restoration program at the University of Victoria. As she never quite wanted to be in academia, she took on this position, which gives her a flexible compromise between research and teaching. Her job allows her to commit to many hands-on projects, working within the community, as well as within the university alongside students completing restoration projects as their practicum. This way, Dr. Shackleford is able to focus more on restoration and engage with other types of work beyond the research activities of publishing, designing experiments, etc. The other side of her job requires her to work with graduate students conducting research, something she also loves doing. Her job, she says, is the perfect middle ground between applied work and research.

By somewhat of an accident, Dr. Shackleford became interested in restoration after a trip to Maui. Born and raised in Texas, she originally majored in mathematics and liberal arts at the University of Austin, Texas. Since Texas has a more arid climate, growing up, Dr. Shackleford never truly felt interested in nature. She recalled how on her first trip by herself to Maui, she took a yoga workshop. The organization that planned the workshop was a member of WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). As such, the workshop included a trip around an island, in which the attendees were educated about the impacts humans had on Hawaii, including the environmental issues. For Dr. Shackleford, this was her first time going somewhere so beautiful but also so evidently affected by humans. From then on, Dr. Shackleford started engaging in environmental work on campus and even helped direct the campus environmental center. When she decided to do her master's degree, she wanted to leave Texas, and thus joined Richard Hobbs’ lab, focusing on restoration work, in Western Australia.

Since Dr. Shackleford has a background in math, much of her work is heavily data-driven. One of her current projects involves gathering data from restoration projects all around the world in order to analyze it in a large meta-analysis context (a statistical combination of results from two or more separate studies). In doing so, her research attempts to help figure out when and where restoration fails and works so that a global trend can be derived. From there, she hopes that her results can help people and practitioners learn as a community in terms of how effective their implemented strategies are.

Due to her nomadic background, Dr. Shackleford tends to think about how ecosystems function instead of the ecosystem itself. As a result, she mostly involves herself with functional ecology, doing a lot of trait-based research and restoration, and she looks at how restoration can work based on an organism’s role in the ecosystem. Her research focuses on trying to predict the outcome of restoration using a framework of thinking that can be applied to species based on their functional role in a given ecosystem.

Functional ecology is a branch of ecology that focuses on the roles species play in an ecosystem.

For Dr. Shackleford, her favorite part of conducting research is the process of learning something new, especially when this new knowledge connects with the collected data. Seeing her students go through the same learning process, making these connections between their data and what they’re learning, is a highlight for her. Her students also learn that research is not truly an objective process, but one with a subjective side, in which they have to make choices in terms of how they collect data, what questions they ask, and more. In her own words, “research is a story.” For her, watching her graduate students go through this journey and discovering this more creative side to research is truly rewarding.

To date, Dr. Shackleford’s most memorable project is the Global Restore Project, one that she continues to work on. It is the most extensive restoration database in the world, with over 1.3 million records. Working together with a collaborator in Germany, the project was able to grow globally which, as a result, now lets them ask more complex questions in terms of global trends for restoration.

Another exciting project for Dr. Shackleford is restoration work on a hay field. While the process has been messy and difficult, she says being able to see the restoration process happening first-hand has been a magical experience. Just watching all the care that goes into this one project, and knowing that she has contributed even just a bit, is very rewarding. In addition, she marvels at the accidental questions asked, and the fascinating spatial data (data that references a geographical location) that was collected.

To the students who are or will be conducting research, Dr. Shackleford says, “You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s fine. The scientific process is a lot about honesty and working with all the scientists around you to figure out what went wrong and what went right and to figure out how to make it better next time.” Thus, when conducting research, it’s best to forget about perfectionism, and also, to not take everything too seriously. After all, “you are getting paid to use your be outside, to try out what your experiment looks like, and to see what you can learn,” making research an incredible opportunity for growth.

Dr. Shackleford hopes that her research can eventually be something useful for practitioners to integrate into their work, since much of the data that scientists collect is often distanced from the work that restoration practitioners carry out. In addition, Dr. Shackleford hopes that she can give back to the community, as the university is a hub for restoration work, she says, and it should be able to support those who are actively doing this type of work in the community.

In the future, she sees her research helping develop actual tools that can make data accessible and useful to practitioners. In addition, she plans to eventually integrate people into her research, as restoration cannot be separated from people—they do the work because they have certain values. In essence, restoration is the reconnection between people and the land. For her, restoration is trying to figure out how to weave the social aspect of restoration with scientific research.

Throughout her time in Victoria, Dr. Shackleford has been fortunate enough to interact with indigenous partners. While she may never be able to fully understand their relationship with the land, she has been able to discuss restoration with them, catching glimpses of their unique bond with nature. The knowledge keepers in these communities have taught her about this idea of the relationship between a person and the land they live on. Now that she has taken a step back from her nomadic life, she has been able to learn and study native plants in greater depth, and by extension, experience this bond herself. In her own words, “It’s something that both informs [her] science, but also just makes [her] feel like [she has] roots that are growing in a way that [she needs] as a human.” It gives her a sense of responsibility, but also the sense that the land is giving back to her, a profound insight from her time in the field.

Written by Belinda Chang

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