Welcome Dr. Chelsea Little

Ecosystem researcher joins the School of Environmental Science

Starting this January, Dr. Chelsea Little is joining the School of Environmental Science as an Assistant Professor. 

“It is all about applying your scientific skills in order to understand what is going on ecologically”, she says of careers in environmental science. 

For professor Little, her interest in the outdoors started at an early age. Living in an environment with plenty of nature nearby instilled a sense of curiosity about the natural elements and shifts in nature. One of her main priorities in her research is to understand the impact humans have on our earth’s ecosystems. 

“I really focused on the place and on my work, Dr. Little says of her experience with field-based research. "It was a really great opportunity to be immersed in the place where you are working”, says Little.  

For any aspiring students looking for work in Environmental Science, SFU's Co-op program offers a variety of positions to help you find what you are looking for. As for useful resources for programs and similar experiences, check out the ‘Careers and Co-op’ page on the School of Environmental Science website. For more information on Dr. Chelsea Little’s career path, follow her interview bellow.

Tell us about your research. 

My research is about the connections between ecosystems. When you look at a stream or a river, the part that is in your field of vision – which we call a “reach” – is actually affected by ecosystems far from where you’re standing. Nearby, leaves from the forest are falling into the stream and providing food for invertebrates at the base of the food web. When it rains, sediment and woody debris enter the waterway and are carried downstream. Maybe there is high nutrient loading from an agricultural area upstream that you can’t even see. The river might have fish that live part of their lives in a faraway ocean, only to return and play a key role in this freshwater ecosystem. Terrestrial animals use the river too, like birds that forage in different parts of the landscape but snap up aquatic insects when they emerge into aerial forms in large swarms at certain times of the year.

One of the major aims of my research program is to understand the flow of energy and matter (like carbon) through the components of an ecosystem – from resources to plants to animals and back to detritus. This is called ecosystem functioning. I explicitly consider space in my research, and how the connections between ecosystems and the arrangement of ecosystems in a landscape affect ecosystem functioning. For example, if a forest is converted into some other land use type, how does the change in material flow to a nearby stream affect its’ functioning? Or how does the arrival of an invasive species alter ecosystem functioning and thus how much carbon is processed locally versus being exported downstream?

Chelsea Little conducting stream research in Switzerland. 

What motivates your research?

I grew up spending a lot of time outside – I was an only child living in a fairly rural area. I wandered around the thimbleberry thickets and stream behind our house and made up stories and fantasy worlds based there. Now, I love hiking and cross-country skiing, where I can move across a landscape and through many different types of habitats and ecosystems. I’m always interested in these transitions from one spot to a next: seeing how the trees change, spotting different kinds of wildflowers, hearing different birds or knowing that there are bear or deer nearby. I think that part of my motivation for my research is just to apply the scientific skills I’ve gained over my career to understand what is going on ecologically in these transition zones and how the habitats are interconnected.

The part of my research that has to do with ecosystem function has a much more applied motivation. Humans are affecting ecosystems in many ways, and we’ve seen time and time again that it can be hard to predict the consequences of our actions. So it’s really important to gain a better understanding of how energy and materials move through the different parts of an ecosystem, and how this might depend on the landscape around it. Biodiversity is important for its own sake, and the maintenance of biodiversity and of functional ecosystems are deeply intertwined. But as humans, we also depend on ecosystems to keep functioning in a balanced way, and to provide us with materials and services and nice places to live. So there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about ecosystem function.

You’ve conducted fieldwork that has taken you to many diverse places. What’s been the most memorable?

I have! It’s hard to pick just one, but I really enjoyed doing my masters research at a field station called Lanjajaure in northern Sweden. At the time, I was studying climate change effects on tundra plant communities. With a field assistant, we shopped for a month’s worth of food in the town of Abisko and then had a helicopter take us up to the field station, where we lived for about a month. We buried anything that needed to be refrigerated in a snowbank; the only power was provided by solar panels. The field station had a few small buildings for housing researchers, and another that served as a lab and herbarium. It was nestled on a small lake in the mountains and there was a rowboat that someone had used for limnology research long ago. Sometimes we would just row around the lake for fun. Herds of reindeer would wander by, and on one of the first days another researcher spotted a wolverine (I missed it!). It was a really neat spot to sit and count tundra plants, and we could go on amazing hikes after work. Because it was quite remote – no cell service at the field station at that time and a satellite phone only for emergencies – I really focused on the place and on my work. I couldn’t look up species identifications on the internet or compare notes with anyone else. I had to observe and reflect on why one spot of the tundra was different than another spot a few hundred meters away. It was a great opportunity to really be immersed in the place where you are working.

Latnjajaure field station at sunset in July 2014.

On your twitter profile, you have identified yourself as a journalist. What motivates you to participate in science outreach and communication and how do you plan on bringing this into your classes?

I worked as a journalist part-time before and during graduate school, and I learned so much that has been useful to my scientific career. I really enjoy the challenge of finding what part of a story will be most interesting to other people, and structuring ideas in order to present that story most effectively. In a lot of ways that’s very similar to what we do in research. We have a hypothesis, and then we do some science and get results, but in order to understand what our results mean we need to probably look through the literature and connect a lot of different concepts and ideas together.

There’s a stereotype of scientists as being bad communicators: using lots of jargon and only sharing their knowledge in bland and uninterpretable reports. But thinking hard about storytelling and narrative can help people connect with our science. That’s true in conversations and presentations, or when writing for the public, but it’s also true even for academic papers and presentations! So in my EVSC 395 course, for example, one of the course goals is to work on writing in several different formats with different target audiences. Together, we will think through and discuss what techniques and best practices are always the same, or what aspects of communication should be approached differently depending on the medium and the audience. No matter what job you end up in, communication is important.

Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing environmental science?

Environmental science is interdisciplinary and there are lots of possible career directions, so my advice would be to get some hands-on experience and see which areas you’re most interested in. Try to get an internship, summer job, or co-op position, or work in a research laboratory on campus through work-learn, directed studies, or a thesis. You might find that the actual work you thought you wanted to do actually makes you miserable (this happened to me) – or you might enjoy doing something that you never considered (this also happened to me!). Or, maybe you’ll do the thing you thought you wanted to do, and know that you have made the right choice; in that case, you’ll gain valuable skills and experience that will make it easier to continue down that path. SFU has lots of great resources for getting involved with environmental science, and now is the time to try out some different options.