Janet Silbernagel: Intersecting science, nature and design

August 30, 2013

As a self-described designer at heart, Janet Silbernagel works at the intersection of art and science. It’s from this perspective in her landscape conservation lab that she and a team of graduate students bring unique solutions to modern challenges.

“By integrating our best science and community knowledge, we can design innovative solutions,” Silbernagel says. “From a smart phone app to adaptation or conservation strategies to a professional program, there are many ways to find a design solution.”

Silbernagel is a professor of environmental studies and landscape architecture and program chair of Environmental Conservation, a recently redesigned professional master’s degree program within the Nelson Institute that will welcome its first cohort in the summer of 2014.

What is the focus of your work?

Silbernagel: I use a spatial approach to landscape conservation. I work with diverse research teams and graduate students to inform innovative conservation strategies and design in a changing global environment. We often combine geospatial analyses, modeling and scenario approaches with local, place-based knowledge. My research background is in landscape ecology, but before that I came from a design background in landscape architecture. The most overriding, common theme for me has been consideration of different spatial arrangements, largely for conservation or forest and wetland management.

"I was in the ecology
club in high school
while taking every
art class that I could.
I then found my
way into landscape

One of my current studies, with support from the Nature Conservancy, evaluates the effectiveness of forest conservation strategies, and the emerging practice of "distributed conservation." We’ve involved local experts – essentially the forest managers in the upper Great Lakes region –to develop, model and interpret forest scenarios, or alternative landscape futures.

In another project, funded by Wisconsin Sea Grant, our team designed a geotool application to foster citizen engagement. The app uses mobile maps to help local communities write or build their own spatial narrative – a story of place – by recording photos, audio, video and journal entries to be uploaded to a community map. Our concept was prototyped with Esri, a leading geographic information systems (GIS) software maker.

Now we are piloting the app in Wisconsin coastal communities and at the same time, conducting social science research to understand how this tool impacts users’ interest in and engagement with coastal topics and the environment.

What drew you to this profession?

The integration of art, science and nature drew me to this profession. I was in the ecology club in high school while taking every art class that I could. I then found my way into landscape architecture, which combines a lot of those aspects.

I would describe myself as a designer at heart, even though I’m not doing site-level landscape architecture much anymore. The frame I bring to my work is to find and design proactive solutions that work for both communities and their natural environment.

I began as a landscape architect for the Forest Service, where I designed outdoor recreational areas like campgrounds and interpretive sites. I wanted to add more depth to my knowledge in ecology, so I went to graduate school at Michigan Tech to study forest ecology and then landscape ecology for my Ph.D.

What do you think your background and approach brings to the Nelson Institute?

I bring a positive, proactive, almost entrepreneurial spirit. I have experience across campus and in the profession, so I bring the ability to connect people and pieces to build networks. I also enjoy collaborating with diverse communities and teams. And I love working with graduate students; it’s always been my favorite part of academics.

For our environmental conservation professional master’s program, I am able to contribute to the Nelson Institute my experience returning to graduate school after working professionally in forest and landscape management – which is similar to the professional program model.

Thinking about your current work, what excites you most?

First is the idea of spatial literacy and engagement with nature – that’s an area that I think I will continue to be intrigued by.

Second is China and the environment. I’ve been to China several times and I’ve both taught a course and initiated research in China. From those experiences, I see China at a turning point in the direction it will take toward the environment. I think we at UW-Madison, with the Wisconsin China Initiative and the Nelson Institute, have momentum in contributing to the future of China’s environment.

"I think we at UW-Madison,
with the Wisconsin China
Initiative and the Nelson
Institute, have momentum
in contributing to the future
of China’s environment."

We also have the professional program starting in June 2014 that I am excited about. The overall goal of the program is training conservation leaders. The degree is intended for those who have been working for a bit and realize they want to take their career in new directions. So the immediate goal is to give our students the scientific grounding and decision-making toolsets they need to be real motivators and agents of change.

Our longer-term goal is to do this really well so that we are in the top tier of conservation and professional graduate programs in the environment. We also hope to build on the idea with other professional or summer programs that have a slightly different focus – for instance, environmental education or environmental policy.

Speaking about your travels, where is the most interesting place you’ve been and why?

Several years ago I traveled to Morocco with my husband Nick. I loved all the colors, smells and different foods. I guess we’ve tried to integrate some of those colors and flavors from Morocco into our home and life.

When did you come to UW-Madison and what attracted you to the Nelson Institute?

I’ve always been drawn to water; I’m kind of a water-borne creature. My dad grew up in Madison years ago (when the edge of town ended at University Heights); he grew up sailing and rowing on Lake Mendota. I’m continually drawn back to the lakes, whether it be Lake Mendota or the Great Lakes, for sailing, kayaking, rowing or just hanging out.

My previous academic job was at Washington State University, which I loved – it was a beautiful area of Washington – but part of the draw to Wisconsin was eventually missing its many lakes.

I came to UW-Madison first as an undergraduate and then I returned in 1999 as a faculty member in landscape architecture. Once I was back in Madison as a faculty member, I quickly found the Nelson Institute because of the kinds of graduate students I wanted to work with: those who were interested in various forms of landscape conservation.

Do you have any words of advice for those following in your path? Or perhaps for young women in science?

Follow your authentic self – easier said than done! You can do remarkable things with a graduate degree; for many that doesn’t have to be a Ph.D. Young graduate students should really, really be thoughtful about that decision, because doctoral work puts you on a long-term track that you need to be prepared for – it’s almost a life track. Often, other kinds of graduate degrees can open multiple career doors. Being open to those doors and passions will lead to great contributions.