Postdoc Wins Research Prize

Julie Ekstrom

Prize for Postdoc

In recognition of high achievement in interdisciplinary research linking science and policy, a paper by Julie Ekstrom, a PhD graduate of the UCSB Marine Science program whose advisor was Bren professor Oran Young, has won the Ralf Yorque Memorial Prize from the journal Ecology and Society. The prize, which carries an award of of 500 Euros, named the paper, titled "Evaluating functional fit between a set of institutions and an ecosystem," as "the most novel paper published in 2009 that integrates different streams of science to assess fundamental questions in the ecological, political, and social foundations for sustainable social-ecological systems."
The paper was a continuation of Ekstrom's doctoral research at the Bren School, where she worked with Young to develop a computer-based method to assist in identifying gaps and overlaps in ocean law as it relates to the management of marine ecosystems. She then continued to develop her gap analysis into a free, open-source software tool while working as a post-doctoral researcher in Stanford University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She is now working as a post-doctoral researcher studying climate-change adaptation in the Earth Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“I’m pleased that the paper, which is based on Julie’s doctoral work, received this award,” said Professor Young. “She has done an excellent job of developing quantitative techniques for measuring how effectively management systems or institutions are matched to the important features of the problems they are created to manage.”

Ekstrom says that Bren dean Steve Gaines (then director of the UCSB Marine Science Institute) also played an important role in helping to develop the method she used. "He was one of my committee members and was incredibly helpful about discussing ideas and details for the method from the beginning," she says.

"I'm thrilled and honored to win this," Ekstrom said about the award. "I've had lots of confirmation that it's a good idea and that I'm moving in the right direction," she says, but there she has also received criticism from some quarters, where interdisciplinary work of the type she is pursuing is not the norm. "It's especially nice to receive the recognition for something that attempts to bring these different streams together, because there's nothing there before you that confirms you're on the right track."

Below is an excerpt describing Ekstrom's research, from the fall 2008 issue of the Bren News newsletter:

The program’s function is fairly straightforward. A user inputs an ecosystem model of any scale of interest, representing a system’s components and linkages, as defined by the user. The program runs the ecosystem model against a comprehensive set of laws and regulations on the books, and the program finds the gaps. She is presently focusing on the geographical area defined by the California Current, but says, “The method is transferable to any ecosystem.”

She illustrates the contribution of the tool in the context of eelgrass, an important element contributing to the ecological health of estuaries in the Pacific Northwest. “Various species, including crab and salmon, depend on eelgrass,” she says, “but in looking at the laws and regulations that serve as proxies for management, we don’t see much recognition of the importance of the ecosystem links that exist around it.”

She explains that, similar to the federal management, coastal states have historically focused on managing a single species for a single use, without explicitly accounting for the key linkages and the results of that use. “Managing urchins in California, we monitor that one species without any consideration of the impact of, say, sea otters on urchins,” she says. “That single-sector, single-use management has got us into trouble because the impacts resulting from linkages remain unseen, unaccounted for, and unaddressed in policy. My tool helps people see which connections have been acknowledged and which haven’t.” The ones that haven’t, she calls “gaps.”

“The idea is to apply this to any region at any time, so we can pull the laws for Minnesota and run them, or the laws of Massachusetts and run them. As for ecosystem models, she says, the data exists in abundance. “It’s just a question of getting people on board to share it.”

For now, she says, “All the emphasis is on the code, the code, the code. But I’m looking forward to trying it and being creative with all the ways we can use it and refine it to begin answering questions relating to scale in the context of governance.

“Governance research doesn’t usually have a lot of quantitative data,” she says. “Theories tend to be built from case studies. We can use those theories to drive development of quantitative analysis of institutional interplay, how well a governance system fits with an ecosystem, at what scale we should be managing, and what lessons can be learned. This could bring a quantitative element to that research.”