When she’s not teaching in a classroom at Wurster Hall, Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning PhD candidate Sophie Taddeo can be found wading knee-high in the wetlands of the Sacramento River Delta. As one of the recipients of the 2016 doctoral Delta Science Fellowship, she will be spending the next two years conducting field work and collaborating with members of the San Francisco Estuary Institute on her research project, which aims to measure the progress of wetland restoration in the marshes of the Sacramento River Delta.
A native of Canada, Sophie graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Geography from the Université de Montréal and received her Master of Science in Plant Sciences from McGill University before coming to the College of Environmental Design last fall. Below is an interview with Sophie on her latest research and future endeavors.
What led you to pursue the PhD program in Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning?
I studied environmental geography as an undergraduate student and became interested in ecology and questions of ecology, and that led me to do my Master’s in Plant Sciences. That was when I began to do more research and get involved with specific research questions. For example during my graduate degree I studied an invasive plant species propagating in a protected wetland in Quebec, and I found that many of the patterns of propagation were linked to some of the management decisions that had been made on site. That got me interested in the relationship between the decisions we make to protect nature and their efficacy. I think that wetland restoration specifically is interesting because it’s one of the most intrusive ways of managing nature. It’s such a new science that we don’t always know if it’s effective or not and that really interests me. The interactions and relationships between human populations and nature are what led me to pursue a PhD in Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning.
Why did you choose the College of Environmental Design?
My main criteria in choosing a university was choosing an advisor, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to get in touch with Iryna Dronova, whose work is really interesting and relevant to what I wanted to learn. The Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning brings together designers, scientists and planners, and for me as a research scientist it’s interesting to see how my research gets applied, which makes my work much more grounded and realistic.
You were recently awarded the two-year Delta Science/California Sea Grant Fellowship. What type of research and field work does your fellowship entail?
I’m doing field work in the Sacramento Delta wetlands which have been restored a number of times over the years, some dating back to 15 years ago, others five years ago and some more recently. What I am doing is looking at plant growth and other properties of the wetlands and comparing them based on when they were restored. The majority of monitoring being done by restoration agencies is very limited – mostly from a lack of funding – so they typically monitor wetlands for five years or less, which doesn’t give us much information on how those wetlands are going to transform and evolve over time. So that’s the main idea of my project – to provide long term monitoring to learn from past projects in order to see how we can improve future designs.
Some factors I’m looking at include plant productivity on the ground level and the structure of wetlands, including height, density, vegetation and spatial aspects. Plant productivity is important for a number of reasons, one of which is wildlife. Birds, for example, will use different types or heights of vegetation depending on the species and stage of their life cycle. Plant productivity is also important for carbon sequestration and the reversal of land subsidence.
A fair portion of my summer has been dedicated to doing fieldwork with research assistants. We’ve been going every month to the wetland sites to track the progression of vegetation growth, and we’ve been taking different types of measurements to get a sense of how the productivity of these wetlands have been changing. I’ve also been doing an analysis of aerial images of these sites to see how the other structures of vegetation have been changing through time, using images from NASA and the USDA.
Have you had any challenges or discoveries in the field or in your research thus far?
In general, doing field work in wetlands is really challenging – the vegetation is really dense, there’s lots of water of course, so it’s not super easy to navigate or walk into. Also if you drop something in the wetlands, it’s pretty much gone. But so far, nothing has been too challenging. I’m still analyzing data, but we’ve been seeing fairly different patterns between sites. Since all our sites have been restored at different points in time, that suggests that there’s a lot of progression of vegetation through time. It’s not static.
Your fellowship involves mentorship with the SF Estuary Institute. What does that partnership entail?
As a part of the fellowship I am required to have a community mentor, and mine is the San Francisco Estuary Institute. Part of their role is to connect me to databases or other other organizations that are doing work in the same field of research, and also to help me think about how to translate my work into policy and management of the delta long term. The Institute has done a lot to make historical and present-day data available to the public, and they’ve also published a considerable amount of research on landscape changes in the delta and how we can use that information to do better planning in future projects. So it’s nice to be affiliated with an organization outside of academia that is still aware of the issues going on right now.
What’s your long term vision for your project over the next two years?
The main goal of the project is to look at 20 years of data in order to provide a synthesis of what has been done so far in terms of restoration. By comparing how these different restoration projects have changed throughout that 20-year time frame, I’m hoping we can learn what exactly made certain projects more successful than others. Another question I want to explore is: If we restore a wetland that’s really close to an urban environment, is its restoration going to be more or less successful compared to wetland in a more protected and less disturbed environment?
What are your goals after finishing your PhD work?
I would be interested in seeking a faculty position and teaching, but another interesting alternative would be to work for a conservation organization. I worked a little bit for the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, and I really enjoyed my experience. If I could be a project manager or director of a science division I would really enjoy that. Both would be really great, and I’ll see what’s available when I graduate.