A Q&A With Jessica Hellmann

October 28, 2015
The new director of the Institute on the Environment and EEB faculty member talks about her dual roles, her research and her ideas about how to address climate change. 
Photo: Josh Kohanek

"Adjusting to climate change — and that humans might help nature adjust to climate change — invites us to ask what nature is and why it is important."

Jessica Hellmann became director of the University’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) this summer. As an expert on the relationship between climate change and ecosystems, Hellmann was also appointed to the Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior (EEB) at the College of Biological Sciences (CBS). She took time to talk about about her new roles, her research and advancing collaboration around environmental challenges.

Q: Dr. Hellmann, how do you see your new roles in IonE and CBS fitting together?

IonE is like a catalyst at the heart of the University. Its topics draw upon all the colleges—and a lot on CBS, in particular—to achieve goals that are interdisciplinary and translational, to have an impact on the environment. By sitting in IonE, I have a unique opportunity to interact and bridge, but as a professor, I also enjoy a disciplinary home. The home that makes the most sense for my academic training and individual research interests is definitely EEB. Fortunately, I direct an institute that's very closely related to my scholarship. It's the best of both worlds.

Q: Considering the diverse goals and personalities at a University of this size, how can the colleges work together to tackle tough environmental issues?

Outside of the University, no one cares whether great scholarship comes from CBS or CFANS or IonE. We just need to get important work done that improves society and the planet. The U is a really big place, and sometimes this large size can get in the way of interdisciplinary collaboration. But IonE is a nimble organization with responsibility to overcome institutional barriers and enhance the University’s scholarship and impact. When IonE works well, it brings faculty and students together by collaborating with the colleges. I am working to emphasize that IonE is a partner with other academic units on campus. It is exciting to be coming in at the same time as Dean Forbes, because I know I'm going to be able to collaborate with her.

Q: Let’s talk more about how you want to impact change—not just at the U, but in the environment at large. Your research career has revolved around how climate change affects ecosystems. Why did you first decide to study this relationship?

Two reasons: 1) We need to figure out what influence humanity has on living systems. 2) It's like this huge experiment, where every corner of the planet is undergoing a systematic change, a perturbation that is shaking ecosystems like a snowglobe. In changing the planet, we are performing a grand ‘experimental manipulation.’ One side benefit is the opportunity to study how the parts react to the experiment and how pieces of ecosystems affect one another.

It turns out that a lot of the impacts of global climate change are not so good. For many years I studied the impacts of climate change, but after a while, that got to be unsatisfying. I wanted to have more of a say about what we could do to mitigate or reduce the negative effects of climate change. So, I started expanding my research from diagnostic—what influence does climate change have?—to more prescriptive—what can we do to reduce those impacts?

Q: What can we do about climate change?

We must slow, and then ultimately stop, greenhouse gas emissions. But you can also manage natural resources better to make them more resilient in the face of climate change, and that we call ‘adaptation.’

Q: How does this use of the word “adaptation” differ from its usual context in the biological sciences?

The ‘adaptation’ I’m talking about refers to human-engineered solutions that help to alleviate the effects of climate change on systems, forests, endangered species and urban populations. It’s an emergent re-purposing of the word that means to adjust, to make better.

But biologists do also use the word to refer to evolutionary processes. In fact, how organisms are adapted to their environment has a huge influence on how they will respond when the environment changes—and also, what kind of strategies will work if we're trying to manage and reduce those effects. In essence, biological adaptation has a lot of influence on how you would do ‘human adaptation.’

Q: It seems rather provocative to suggest that humans should “adjust” nature.

Adjusting to climate change—and that humans might help nature adjust to climate change—invites us to ask what nature is and why it is important. Over the last several years, ecology has been reinventing itself to think about how living systems provide services that are critical to humanity, and we need healthy ecosystems to deliver these services. We are also reexamining what it means to be wild, how ecosystems flourish and change, even when there is that human fingerprint.

Climate change asks us to think about natural resource management in a much more dynamic and transitionary way. We are asking not just about the way a system was, but about what it is doing for us. We have to think about what nature will be in the future and how we might manage for or promote that change, and that's controversial. A lot of the tools in our current toolbox are not designed for that way of thinking.

Q: So, if we need to design new tools, where should we look for inspiration?

When we think about the concept of resiliency, more and more we look to ecosystems as models. Ecosystems do a better job of processing energy and cleaning water and evolving and changing than any human-built system has ever done. Ecosystems also show us that diversity has tremendous value. As the creative force of life, diversity helps ecosystems respond to stress and sustain function in the face of changing conditions. The importance of diversity as the planet is changing is one of the reasons that conserving global species is so important.

—Colleen Smith / October 2015