Interim Director's Message: Fall 2017

Dear Students, Staff, Faculty, Alumni, Friends and Colleagues:

As we approach the Solstice, followed soon by the arrival of SEFS’ new Director Dan Brown, I am contemplating my year as Interim Director and my return to the simple life of being a Professor in Biology.  SEFS is strong.  The faculty are a diverse group of scientists addressing sustainable land use and management in Washington, nationally and globally.  SEFS staff work hard, constantly learning new procedures and on the lookout for efficiencies with the goal of supporting faculty and students in their work.  Students are energetic, driven by ambition to make a positive impact scientifically and personally.  The broader SEFS community of supporters, donors, friends and volunteers add much to the work, and to the fun of doing.  The people of SEFS have made my year the rich, challenging, successful time I am pleased to have shared with you.
Reflecting on some of the goals of this year, and a few of our accomplishments, I know I cannot list them all but here are a few: 

  • SEFS 15”   When I arrived in SEFS last January, faculty asked me to offer time for open discussion during faculty meetings for airing of issues and development of new ideas.  I put this time on the faculty meeting agenda as SEFS 15” and provoked our first discussions with the question “Who is SEFS?”  I naively thought that the “flipped classroom” techniques I’d learned as a lecturer of large classes would work in a faculty meeting – pose a question, wait patiently in silence for an answer.  That faculty meeting was notable for the silence, and confusion.  Perhaps faculty are no longer practiced in the roles of students?  Our third attempt though was notable for its cacophony, for the work done at the time, in the room, to construct a concept of who SEFS is. I have used what I learned that day in all of the work I’ve done for the rest of the year.  You can find a copy of this diagram as it was written on the board during the discussion in March 2017 here
  • Staffing   One of former Director Tom DeLuca’s fondest hopes as he left and turned SEFS over to me was that I would support the strong staff he had helped to recruit and build over his time here.  Supervising a large staff was a new job for me, and I had very much to learn.  As are faculty and students, staff are facing budget cuts that necessitate frequent shifting of duties, increased duties, the need to learn new protocols and software interfaces, and a growing need to be self-reliant and creative in the job.  In my work with staff, I could not have been effective or helpful without the wisdom and knowledge of SEFS Administrator Wendy Star.  She has hired hard-working, efficient and positive staff to augment the staff who have been consistently supporting SEFS for many years.  Together staff have adopted a new model, quietly implemented by Wendy, moving away from turf or silo’d job responsibilities to partnering across positions, as backup and support for each other.  Though SEFS reporting structure can be drawn in a hierarchical tree, much more accurate would be a network showing how jobs are accomplished by contributions from staff colleagues working together as a team.
  • Graduate Program   As the end of my originally scheduled 9-month appointment approached over the summer, I found myself helping to plan the upcoming SEFS Retreat.  Aha! I thought, here’s my chance, I will take this opportunity to engage all of SEFS in a conversation about its Graduate Program.  I took the “flipped classroom” approach of SEFS 15” and expanded it to multiple discussion periods during our day Retreat September 29.  To some, the Retreat was chaotic and unorthodox.  But to many it was a welcome opportunity to talk with others, maybe people they had not yet met, at tables including students, staff and faculty.  The outcomes of the Retreat are posted here including a Wordle expanding the constraint of only 7 “interest group” descriptors of faculty research to numerous keywords.  Following the Retreat, Dr. Soo Kim, Graduate Program Coordinator, became the supervisor of Student Services.  He will bring ideas forward for improving recruitment, community, diversity, mentoring, funding and support of graduate students.  In the several meetings I held over the year with graduate students, good ideas were floated by students including creating a SEFS database for commonly available equipment, offering a “cohort” on-boarding class for incoming grads of all programs, and consolidating SEFS seminars into one high-quality weekly event attracting outside speakers.  SEFS graduate students are ambitious and capable; they will thrive when their potential is gathered into one coherent student body accorded appropriate voice, and informed well of all resources and requirements for their degree programs.
  • DNR   The Director of SEFS sits on the Washington State Board of Natural Resources and is expected to participate knowledgeably in setting policies to guide how the Department of Natural Resources manages state lands and resources.  This includes approving sales, exchanges or purchases of trust lands, timber sales, addressing habitat conservation issues and sustainable harvest calculations.  As you might imagine, my experience as a plant physiologist working on crops did not set me up well for my job with the BNR!  Monthly meetings, lots and lots of homework, a two-day retreat in August, and the helpful input of Angus Brody at the DNR and many SEFS faculty made this work not only possible, but positively enjoyable.  At the November meeting, the Board approved a plan for management consistent with not further harming the endangered Marbled Murrelet, a decision long long overdue and one I was proud to support.  I have come to realize how many SEFS faculty interact at different levels with DNR practitioners.  The WA DNR is one of the most progressive public land management agencies in the US and beyond.  Strong partnership between SEFS researchers and the DNR will help our citizenry make hard choices going forward for how to conserve, restore, and manage our magnificent forests and other public lands.

Coming to SEFS from Biology, and having served as an Adjunct Professor in SEFS and on many SEFS graduate student committees, I thought I knew SEFS before I got here.  But I return to Biology with a much fuller, more accurate view.  There is something strongly compelling about linking discovery-based science with experiments designed for implementation of new knowledge.  We used to call these endeavors “basic” and “applied” research, but these terms do not describe the fundamental nature of both activities, and the usefulness of both sets of discovery.  As I worked with Dean Graumlich in the College of the Environment, gradually I sensed an analogy between the College and the School of Medicine.  In the Biology Department, many students and faculty push boundaries of knowledge about human and animal function – their work is translated into effective treatments by medical researchers and practitioners.  Likewise, SEFS creates knowledge of plants and animals, trees and forests, communities, how humans connect with landscape, and ecology of the whole – this work is translated into sustainable management of resources that all humans, and life, depend on.  My only quibble with SEFS is that there are too few plant and tree biologists; but oh! I’ll be just up the hill in my plant physiology lab, glad to continue sharing my research and teaching with SEFS colleagues.

So many have helped me during the past year, making all the difference in my time at SEFS. I would like to thank a few here:
Dr. Monika Moskal, Associate Director, and Wendy Star, Administrator met with me weekly to sort through issues and come to agreement on actions I was to take.  I am forever grateful to them for the time spent and wisdom accumulated over all those meetings and in between.
Amanda Davis and KC Deterling support the Director’s office, putting up with my somewhat disorganized style and agreeing with me to form a “Space” Committee to gather all building space issues into the Director’s office.  Sometimes this was fun!  We will keep the skeletons in the closet.
Josh Lawler, John Marzluff, and Rick Gustafson were the faculty leaders who supported some of my most difficult decisions and gave me guidance when I needed it.  Together they span the breadth of SEFS and helped me to grasp the whole-ness of SEFS’ endeavor even when sometimes it seemed to be a number of fronts spinning away from each other.  These leaders, and many others, worked with me all year to knead the ball of dough into one delicious loaf (if you can pardon the metaphor).  I thank them for their respectful patience.
Tom Hinckley, former Interim Director of CFR and SEFS, is a long-time mentor and colleague.  He was creatively supportive, both in his roles with the UWBG and UW Farm, and in his direct conversations with me from time to time.  Tom’s financial support of the Director’s office gave me some freedom to be generous.  His sympathetic ear and steadfast support of SEFS benefited us all.
Jerry Franklin surprised me with his quick tutorials on forest ecology, and his recognition of all that DNR has done to accommodate both mandates: to protect public lands and to generate funding for the trust beneficiaries.  He helped us discuss the options for managing lands in view of the Habitat Conservation Plan for the Marbled Murrelet, and taught me much not only about ecology but also about how satisfying a long, active life in research can be.
Lisa Graumlich and her staff at the College have been supportive and kind.  At every turn, they provided context and good advice.  Their transparency was invaluable, their skills and connections around campus essential.  I particularly appreciate Lisa’s light personal style that never failed to get to the heart of the matter quickly and offer an effective solution.

And so, thank you SEFS.  It has been quite a year for me, one I would never have imagined in my career and one I am very grateful for.  I will miss you, but am so confident and excited about where you will go in the coming year and beyond with your new Director Dan Brown.

Happy New Year!


Liz Van Volkenburgh, Interim Director

Liz Van Volkenburgh Signature

December 28, 2017