Training translational ecologists: Moving from accidental to intentional

Mark Brunson
Mark Brunson (biography)

Community member post by Mark Brunson

How does an ecologist become translational? What training is needed to venture beyond the lab or university and to engage with the potential beneficiaries or users of their research? To communicate with (and listen to) a lay audience, advise policymaking processes, initiate a citizen science project, or involve stakeholders in the design, analysis, and interpretation of research?

William Schlesinger (2010), in coining the term translational ecology, warned that “[u]nless the discoveries of ecological science are rapidly translated into meaningful actions, they will remain quietly archived while the biosphere degrades.”

Translational ecology, defined elsewhere in this blog, is a “boundary-spanning environmental science that leads to actionable research focused on maintaining or enhancing the resilience of social-ecological systems” (see also Brunson and Baker 2016).

Translational research should use adaptive, iterative modes of inquiry that transcend standard disciplinary boundaries. It should provide accessible tools and frameworks that allow knowledge exchanges among ecologists and the intended beneficiaries of their science, promoting mutual learning and a shared sense of its utility.

All of this sounds praiseworthy, but perhaps also daunting. Translational science requires knowledge that may not be part of standard natural science curricula and skills that may not be developed in post-baccalaureate training, not to mention practitioners who develop inclusive habits of mind and behavior not required for other forms of research.

To learn how to train a new generation of translational ecologists, one obvious place to start is to examine how those environmental scientists whose research already is translational prepared for this work. I suggest, however, that their route to translational science is likely shaped more by happenstance than by intention.

I offer my own educational and career path as an example. I study linkages between social and ecological systems, and spend much of my time engaging with non-scientist stakeholders as a communicator and learner. I have facilitated collaborative planning efforts and have involved livestock producers and rangeland managers in the research agenda.

How did I learn to do all this?

My undergraduate coursework was as much humanities as natural science, more out of indecisiveness than any deliberate effort to be a boundary-spanner, and I pursued a career as a science and environmental journalist. Upon earning a social science Master’s degree, I entered a doctoral program in forestry where I joined a multidisciplinary research team as someone who understood forest ecology well, but who could also study effects of forestry practice on human experience.

In a post-doctoral position, I became one of the first scientists to focus on humans at a Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, and in the 24 years since have split evenly between ecologist and social psychologist – a choice that at first seemed odd but eventually positioned me well for the study of social-environmental systems and synthesis as a university professor.

My path to translational ecology was circuitous, with a significant detour. My stops along the route proved valuable for translational science, but do we wish to rely on fortuitous wanderings to provide the training needed to improve our capacity for translational ecology? I argue we cannot afford to do that.

It is one thing, though, to say we need more translational ecologists; it’s quite another to fit translational training into a modern graduate ecology program.

As discussed elsewhere on this blog, three main competencies emerge when defining and practicing translational ecology, namely knowledge, skills, and dispositional attributes. I address these competencies in a graduate-level Translational Ecology course, perhaps the first of its kind. Those who complete it gain valuable experience, but the course only scratches the surface of what they could learn.

A challenge is that translational ecology competes with a growing list of other skills essential for modern day ecology. Ecology students are bombarded with advice about skills to make them most marketable for research careers, from advanced statistics to geographical information systems (GIS) to data visualization techniques. Would a degree track in translational ecology help, or would it simply detract from other aspects of their research?

As yet we don’t see job announcements for “translational ecologists.” We do, however, see more and more evidence that translational skills are needed. Rather than hoping students will become translational scientists by accident, we must find ways to offer graduate training that creates translational scientists by design rather than happenstance.

We’d like to know how other scientists acquired the skills and knowledge they’ve found most useful for translational research. What was your path to becoming translational? Have you had success in teaching translational skills and, if so, how did you go about it? Does your institution offer a path to translational ecology?


Brunson, M. W. and M. A. Baker. (2016). Translational training for tomorrow’s environmental scientists. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 6, 2: 295-299. Online DOI: 10.1007/s13412-015-0333-x

Schlesinger, W. H. (2010). Translational ecology. Science, 329, 5992: 609

Biography: Mark W. Brunson is a professor of Environment and Society in Utah State University’s Quinney College of Natural Resources. He is an environmental scientist who applies methods from both sociology and ecology to understand how people interact with nature in complex ways. His current research focuses on production and management of rangeland ecosystem services, environmental justice implications of urban stream restoration, and effects of protected area boundaries on ecosystem service production. He directs public outreach programs focused on urban water sustainability and wildfire and invasive species interactions in rangelands, and he was a principal investigator for the Translational Ecology Pursuit funded by the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Art and participatory modelling

Community member post by Hara W. Woltz and Eleanor J. Sterling

Hara W. Woltz (biography)

What can art contribute to participatory modelling? Over the past decade, participatory visual and narrative arts have been more frequently and effectively incorporated into scenario planning and visioning workshops.

We use arts-based techniques in three ways:

  1. incorporating arts language into the process of visioning
  2. delineating eco-aesthetic values of the visual and aural landscape in communities
  3. engaging art to articulate challenges and solutions within local communities.

The arts based approaches we use include collage, drawing, visual note taking, map making, storyboarding, photo documentation through shared cameras, mobile story telling, performance in the landscape, drawing as a recording device, and collective mural creation.

Eleanor J. Sterling (biography)

They allow us to expand and deepen engagement strategies beyond the scope of traditional dialog tools such as opinion surveys, workshops, and meetings. And, they allow for both individual and collective work, from spending reflective time independently, to rejoining as a group to discuss process and products. They are also particularly effective in bicultural and multicultural settings.

Visual techniques can help foster a different type of discussion than one that is primarily verbal or quantitative because they involve participants in different patterns of thinking, questioning, and interacting. These techniques:

  • encourage participants to express values in a non-verbal language
  • enhance creative perception, idea generation, and experimentation
  • foster discussion
  • aid in communication of ideas and findings during the process of scenario planning
  • contribute to documentation of the ideas generated.

They may stimulate new approaches to familiar subjects, allowing participants to look from alternative, and multiple perspectives. Additionally, they may level background differences among participants and aid in the creation of a common language since teams engage in activities and create products together during workshops. These tools can help integrate disparate groups and engage those who may not engage as well through other methods. They may help generate a shared vision through the continual generating and refining of creative products. They may help to communicate results of a workshop through a tangible end product.

Our work in the Western Pacific provides an illustration. We used visual and verbal prompts to engage community members in considering their current diet and ideal diet through drawing. We provided participants with a folded base of three connected pages. On the front and back of each page, we drew a plate so that each participant received six plates to fill in with drawings. On one side, we asked them to draw what they ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, and on the other to draw what their ideal daily consumption would look like.


After drawing for thirty minutes, each participant presented her work and all participated in a group discussion about why the differences between ideal meals and actual meals existed. This practice gave participants a chance to think about what they had eaten and what they might want to eat because the time to draw is longer than the time to list what one remembers eating. When we take the time to draw something, our minds may linger longer on the question at hand. Additionally, for people who may not be used to public speaking, holding a drawing as a prop that may be referred to for reference may be emboldening and add to the comfort level with engaging.

Art can also play a role in spatially explicit mapping and modeling. For example, a range of aerial and satellite imagery over time can be used to map land cover and land use change. Community members can be invited to move between looking at images, walking in the landscape, and discussing a vision for the future that is informed by past experiences.

Drawing, writing, and collaging on top of existing visual documents can create a rich mosaic of ideas and visions for the future, and delineate the process through which the ideas are expressed. Results from participatory mapping workshops and exercises can feed into modeling for future scenario development, in turn to facilitate informed decision making on the part of communities.

Over time, and through interactions and experiences with community members, the scope of our arts based evaluation continues to evolve, guided by the desires and engagement of community members and what we discover. What are your experiences using engagement tools? Have you found differences in the way that participants respond to visual versus verbal prompts?

Biography: Hara Woltz is an artist and conservation biologist. She has a studio practice and currently consults as a visiting scientist with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Utilizing a variety of media, she addresses aspects of the destruction and conservation of ecological systems. Through her work, she reveals patterns, connects disciplines, and examines interactions between humans and the environment. She has worked on a variety of ecological design projects throughout the world. Her art works are included in a number of corporate and private collections.

Biography: Eleanor Sterling PhD is Chief Conservation Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Building on her interdisciplinary training and experience, she bridges biological and socio-cultural perspectives and integrates them into management strategies for integrated ecological and human systems. She has over 30 years of field research and community outreach experience in both terrestrial and marine systems around the globe and is considered a world authority on the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascarensis), a nocturnal lemur found only in Madagascar. She focuses her current work on the intersection between biodiversity, culture, and languages and explores the factors influencing resilience from a biocultural approach. She is a member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in February 2016 of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Ten communication tips for translational scientists

Community member post by Sunshine Menezes

Sunshine Menezes (biography)

As someone who works with scientists, journalists, advocates, regulators, and other types of communication practitioners, I see the need for translational scientists who can navigate productive, start-to-finish collaborations between such groups on a daily basis.

This translation involves the use of new, more integrated approaches toward scientific work to confront wicked environmental problems society faces.

In spite of this need, cross-boundary communication poses a major stumbling block for many researchers. Science communication requires engagement with potential beneficiaries, not just a one-way transfer of information.

Effective communication is a key component of translational science, requiring both theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

To that end, I offer ten tips for translational scientists seeking more effective communication: Continue reading

The interplay between knowledge and power / La interacción entre el conocimiento y el poder

Community member post by Cristina Zurbriggen

Cristina Zurbriggen (biography)

An English version of this post is available

La mayoría de los recientes enfoques para abordar problemas complejos no incluyen la dimensión política. Por otra parte, la ciencia política, así como los estudios de política pública y de gobierno contemporáneo han realizado escasas contribuciones al tratamiento de los procesos de toma de decisiones desde dinámicas complejas.

¿Cómo podemos desarrollar marcos innovadores que incorporen la dimensión política? ¿Cómo podemos articular la producción conocimiento considerando también la forma en que pensamos acerca de la política, la rendición de cuentas y la responsabilidad social? En concreto, ¿cuál es la dimensión política del proceso de co-creación de conocimiento y cuáles son las implicaciones de la participación política, la experimentación y el aprendizaje colectivo? Continue reading

From fountain to firehose

Community member post by David Feldon

David Feldon (biography)

As scholars working within disciplines, we ascribe to certain theories, assumptions, and tools that position us within an intellectual community. As scholars working within fields, we focus our inquiry on specific interactions between the natural world and elements of human endeavor.

Being situated within these two spheres – as translational ecologists and other translational scientists are – carries with it certain tensions that can be challenging to navigate: Ultimately, who constitutes our target audience? How do we balance contribution to discipline through the development of theory with contribution to the field through recommendations for practice? Perhaps most importantly, how do we maximize our impact? Continue reading

Co-creation without systems thinking can be dangerous

Community member post by Gerald Midgley

Gerald Midgley (biography)

Why does the theory and practice of co-creation need to be informed by systems thinking? Co-creation without a thorough understanding of systems thinking can be deeply problematic. Essentially, we need a theory and practice of systemic co-creation.

Three key things happen in any co-creation:

  1. It is necessary for a diversity of perspectives to engage.
  2. There is the synergistic innovation that results from this engagement.
  3. The innovation is meaningful in a context of use.

This is already a systemic definition, up to a point: parts (perspectives) are engaged in a whole (a dialogue or other form of collective engagement) that generates an emergent property (synergistic innovation), which is meaningful in context (it is useful).

However there are three problems with this, and they point to the need for a deeper form of systems thinking. Continue reading