Picture a scene in the drylands of Kenya — a vast open expanse of grasses and bare earth, with very few trees, dotted here and there with cattle and goats.
Then think of Driftmier Woods, a pocket of old growth Piedmont forest tucked between the Driftmier Engineering Center and the Family and Graduate Housing complex on the UGA campus.
The two places could hardly be more different. For ecologist Lizzie King, however, both offer an opportunity to gain insights about coupled social and ecological systems, ecosystem services and ecological restoration, subjects that are the focus of her research and teaching as a faculty member in the Odum School of Ecology and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.
Kenya is where King’s interest in ecology began on a family trip when she was 13 where her father, the director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at the time, was helping establish a wildlife reserve.
“Seeing conservation biologists in action inspired me,” said King, who majored in biology in college and returned to Kenya as a Fulbright Scholar to study the ecology and conservation status of a rare, recently discovered species of aloe.
“After being there for a while, though, it began sinking in that there were bigger problems afoot than the status of this one plant,” she said. “There was a lot of land degradation. I started seeing the human side of environmental issues.”
King explored her growing interest in the intersection of ecological and social systems in her doctoral dissertation, with a focus on restoration ecology and sustainability.
“Balancing an ecosystem’s capacity for self-renewal with the services that human societies also require of them is a universal issue that challenges our human-environmental relationships everywhere,” she said. “Restoration ecology is tasked with providing the knowledge to help us navigate those situations toward more sustainable futures, particularly where things have already gone wrong.”
Since arriving at UGA in 2012, King has turned her attention to an area in need of restoration closer to home. She and her students are studying the UGA Chew Crew to understand how using goats in restoration is impacting the ecosystem services provided by natural areas on campus. Those services include not only the maintenance of biodiversity and ecological function, but cultural services such as recreation and aesthetic value.
“We’re also looking at how students’ involvement in restoration changes their own environmental ethics and creates a positive feedback, so that the activity increases their future enjoyment of natural spaces and environmental work,” she said.
King also serves on the executive committee of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research, which coordinates the Integrative Conservation or ICON doctoral program, in collaboration with the Odum School, Warnell and the anthropology and geography departments in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
“ICON is one of the most exciting interdisciplinary programs in the country,” King said.
Students choose a focal discipline and receive rigorous training in that area, but also learn to work and communicate across multiple fields of social and natural sciences.
“It’s putting a lot of the skills needed of an interdisciplinary team into one person,” King said.
The description also fits King herself.
“Being here in one of the best ecology programs and one of the best schools of natural resources, and back in the southeast which is my home, is a real win-win-win situation for me,” she said. “It’s a really exciting place, with the Center for Integrative Conservation Research, to have so much support and enthusiasm for this type of work. That’s not a luxury that all interdisciplinary scholars have.”