NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

 Ellen Macdonald

Dr. Ellen Macdonald

These are exciting careers in which you can keep on learning every day.

Professor and Department Chair, Renewable Resources
University of Alberta

Ellen Macdonald is a Professor of Forest Ecology and Chair of the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta. She obtained her BSc in Environmental Biology and PhD in Plant Ecology from the University of Calgary. She joined the Department of Forest Science as a Postdoctoral Fellow in 1988 and accepted a position as Assistant Professor in 1989. Since then she served as Associate Chair (Planning & Priorities), Associate Dean in the Faculty of Graduate Studies & Research, and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. She became Chair of the Department of Renewable Resources in July 2016.

She teaches a course in Forest Ecosystems and has taught Restoration Ecology, Environmental Assessment, and graduate-level statistics, among other subjects. She has taught at Spring Field School 25 times. Her research is focused on the ecology of northern forests - particularly forest regeneration, stand dynamics, understory plant communities and relationships among these.

Much of her work has examined the impacts of natural (wildlife, insect outbreaks) and human (forest harvesting, mining) disturbance. The goal of her research program is to improve our understanding of the structure and function of forest ecosystems and how they respond to disturbance; this knowledge can then be applied to develop innovative approaches to sustainably manage forests for a diversity of values and to restore forests that have been severely disturbed.

As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?

Teaching and working with students in the field. There is nothing like spending time in the forest to bring me insight and inspiration. I love seeing students get excited about tiny, beautiful plants and other amazing things in forests that are often overlooked.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I'm working on how forest ecosystems respond to human-caused and natural disturbance. In particular my work focuses on how forests regenerate and change over time after disturbance and on the biodiversity of understory plants in forests. What excites me most is the opportunity to take our research results and apply them to approaches to sustainably manage and to restore forests.

What types of professions can students graduating in your field enter?

Our programs lead to careers as professional foresters, environmental consultants, reclamation specialists, wildlife biologist, parks interpreters, planners or managers. There are job opportunities with industry, consulting firms, federal and provincial government agencies, and with non-governmental organizations.

Is your workplace male-dominated? If so, how do you negotiate being a woman in a male-dominated workplace and/or field?

Yes my workplace is male-dominated but that is changing rapidly and I'm so glad to see a very high percentage of women in our undergraduate and graduate programs. I think it’s important to have confidence in your abilities and to stay true to yourself. That is what I try to do - and focus on doing the best job I can. Building a culture of inclusiveness that is free of bias is a slow process but something we can achieve if we keep working to increase awareness.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I try to constantly challenge my own inherent biases and to recognize that equality does not mean treating everyone the same. Everyone needs to be given an equal chance to be their best. I try to use language and actions to model inclusiveness and to challenge others to do the same.

What kinds of systemic support could institutions provide to help encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and engineering?

Our undergrad programs now have more than 50% women so I think we have already succeeded in this. Still I think having mentors and role models is important. In particular, it will be great to see increasing proportions of women in higher-level positions. This will encourage women to aspire to such positions and show them that it can be done.

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?

These are exciting careers in which you can keep on learning every day and through which you can make a really important difference in the world. What more could you want? Try it - you'll like it!

As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

I honestly had few or no female role models because there were almost no women professors when I was an undergrad. I admire scientists who doggedly pursue the truth through rigorous means, who aren't afraid to take some risks, and who are driven by a strong personal ethic and a commitment to have their work be something that helps make the world a better place.