by: Aditi Risbud

Lisa Micheli, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the Pepperwood Foundation, which aims to advance science-based conservation through the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Micheli facilitates the Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative, a grantee through the Moore Foundation’s San Francisco Bay Area program.

Here, she discusses her role as a conduit between local landowners and researchers addressing the relationships between climate, water and life in the ecosystems of California.

What inspired you to become a scientist/researcher?
If you asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was an astronaut!  What drew me to science was the adventure of exploring new worlds.  I soon discovered that our own planet offered many “inner spaces” worthy of exploration, and got to indulge that curiosity further as a solo explorer in the forests of New England growing up.

Ship time on an oceanographic training vessel as an undergraduate, which involved long periods of reflection ‘round midnight on bow watch in the middle of the Sargasso Sea, actually inspired me to stray from my pure science major.  In that crystal stillness, I really couldn’t fathom how humanity could cause so much damage to this stunning world.  I resolved to study some social sciences to try to figure out why, because how else could we reverse this trend? 

My first job was as a staff scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco.  I found my niche among scientists dedicated to applying their training directly to reversing our anthropocene tide of extinction.

What topics/areas/problems in science are you most interested in solving?
I’m fascinated by how life follows water. After working on wetland and river habitat restoration projects, I learned there was a critical need for physical scientists who specialized in collaborating with ecologists. Ultimately, I became a freshwater hydrologist and fluvial geomorphologist.

In 2008, I joined a team assembled by my TBC3 co-chair, Dr. David Ackerly of UC Berkeley, to tackle how to produce scientifically valid yet ecologically relevant climate projections. Working at the time on a massive restoration of the Napa River, I realized we were building for the past instead of the future. This team evolved into the Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3) now based at Pepperwood, where we are tackling the relationships between climate, water, and life in the upland terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems of California.

Pepperwood’s 3,200-acre living laboratory in the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma and our new Dwight Center for Conservation Science provide a platform for this work. Thanks to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, TBC3 is discovering how the cycle of water in our landscape responds to climate variability, and in turn how that ripples across ecosystems.

How do your colleagues, mentors and others help you achieve your goals?
Pepperwood now has an incredible team of scientists, educators, and conservation land managers who inspire conservation through science. Water provides a living thread between the interests of my colleagues and my own passions. 

My current work wouldn’t exist without collaborators--I hardly do any solo work within my original discipline, but for pro bono creek surveys on weekends! My job now is to support some of the world’s best scientists by making Pepperwood an effective backbone organization for innovative collaborations.

I use my scientific training to weave threads of physical and biological specialties into a meaningful whole by helping to articulate key science questions, developing proposals, facilitating dialogue, creating applied science tools, and getting them to users. 

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?First, my love of living things, including my family and friends. Second, I’m motivated to come up with constructive and positive responses to the ecological consequences of climate change, which is the environmental crisis of our time. We are fortunate to be a collaborative that can really put science to use in the near-term by incorporating our findings into county plans and land management for private landowners.

Although it’s critical to focus on our own survival, some of us humans must also act on behalf of other living creatures that don’t have money and can’t vote! TBC3’s local focus provides great potential for positive impact, and sheds light on what is going to be a global challenge—every community will need to get local experts engaged.

What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist/researcher?
Sleep requirements! I still do a fair bit of research paper writing, because it is critical to create a peer-reviewed foundation of research to support applications.  I am also engaged in a lot of science translation between researchers and managers trying to put a cutting-edge knowledge base to work, because there is no time to lose. But perhaps the most meaningful science communications I am engaged in are one-on-one and through presentations, where people really seem to absorb the take-home message of needing to act on climate adaptation.

Today the students of all ages that we host at Pepperwood teach me.  I always enjoy teaching hydrology as part of our Natural History of Pepperwood at Santa Rosa Junior College-because of the questions. After I introduced the definition of a Mediterranean climate, one student asked: “Do you mean there are places where it rains during the summer?”


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