Training translational ecologists: Moving from accidental to intentional

Mark Brunson
Mark Brunson (biography)

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).

4 thoughts on “Training translational ecologists: Moving from accidental to intentional”

  1. It does seem that many people who are ‘boundary spanners’ of one type or another have creative, curious minds that do not so much span boundaries between disciplines as almost ignore them: seeing connections rather than divisions. Whether you can teach this as a skill or whether you have to recruit for the quality is open to debate — perhaps a bit of both. I find it interesting that some of those interested in collaboration also have a musical background: Mark Elliott of Collabforge ; the conductor Paul Macalindin ; and in my own small way myself.

    • Fascinating! I, too, have a musical background although these days I do more solo work than collaborative. It makes sense to me that people who learn at an early age to work with others toward a common goal that cannot be achieved by oneself – whether in music, team sports, or some other similar endeavor – might gravitate as professionals toward collaboration.

  2. Are those who are attracted to research that is inter- or trans-disciplinary and/or translational commonly unable to happily settle into a single discipline? Is this through indecisiveness or insatiable curiosity or attraction to complex problems or…? Certainly I was curious about a wide range of disciplines and attracted to complex problems that no single discipline seemed to address when I was an undergraduate. Would be interested to hear from others.

    • Gabriele – interesting question. I wandered through several disciplines and sectors as I attempted to understand the more fundamental solutions to landscape sustainability…and ended up with my own businesses and wrote two books in the attempt to create the space to work in.


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