Viola Cohen



When Dr. Adam Ford spots a mule deer meandering through a subdivision, he loves knowing not just what she eats, but where she spent the last summer and her routes through the Okanagan landscape. Most importantly, he loves knowing his research supports this deer’s very existence in BC.

It’s this kind of real-world impact that led Dr. Ford to be named UBC Okanagan’s 2024 Researcher of the Year in Natural Sciences and Engineering.

As the Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology (Tier 2) and an Associate Professor in Biology, Dr. Ford leads the Wildlife Restoration Ecology (WiRE) Lab to explore how humans affect the predators and prey around them. His research ranges from minimizing human/bear conflict to understanding people’s opinions on ways to protect caribou.

While much of his work is focused on BC, a UBC Killam Accelerator Research Fellowship is helping expand Dr. Ford’s research in Kenya. Just as elk encounter human-made roadblocks from new cherry orchards in Kelowna, giraffes in Kenya face increased mango crops along the river, which block their drinking water and create conflict with humans when the giraffes eat the mangoes.

“It’s like two versions of the same story,” says Dr. Ford. “The questions in Kenya are very similar to what we’re doing here in BC.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Adam Ford.

His research often follows the lead of Indigenous conservation and restoration, like the West Moberly First Nations’ and Saulteau First Nations’ successful recovery of the Klinse-Za caribou population. Through actions like habitat protection and a maternal pen that allowed caribou to give birth away from predators, Dr. Ford’s lab found the herd grew from 30 caribou in 2013 to over 136 animals in 2023.

“The motivation and the leadership of the caribou recovery came from the communities. It was a huge privilege to be part of that work,” says Dr. Ford.

His engagement with communities and governmental organizations often leads to real-world impacts well before academic publications, like when he saw the threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) entering BC through Alberta and Montana.

Sometimes called “zombie deer disease,” this fatal disease causes animals to become lethargic and waste away. CWD can spread through the deer family to caribou, already a threatened species in Canada. While not yet documented, there’s potential for CWD to jump the species barrier to humans through infected meat, similar to how mad cow disease has a human variant.

“There are huge implications for the spread of CWD in communities that are dependent on wild game, including many Indigenous communities and rural communities,” says Dr. Ford.

Dr. Adam Ford kneels on the ground gesturing to something he sees. A person in colourful clothing stands overtop of him, also pointing to the ground. The two are trekking through a desert as seen by Dr. Ford's backpack and the other man's walking stick.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Adam Ford.

Upon seeing this risk, Dr. Ford was able to rapidly put together a study that identified gaps in provincial sampling where CWD could cross into BC undetected. They directly shared this report with the BC government, which changed the areas for mandatory deer testing as a result.

Unfortunately, the province did identify the first documented cases in BC in early 2024—in one of the same hot spots Dr. Ford’s lab predicted.

Dr. Ford points to funding and support from UBC Okanagan that helped him act so promptly, getting tracking collars out in the field as soon as they were needed.

“I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be to do this work. I can look out my front door and know there are grizzly bears, elk migrations, wildfire… All the dynamics that go into our work are right here.”

He notes that his Researcher of the Year recognition is due to years of hard work from not just him, but everyone in the WiRE Lab.

“This award is testament to the hard work of my students and staff and the trust our partners have put in us. We’re tackling problems that matter to people, and we’re making a difference.”

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ALISA CHUNG BEGAN HER UNIVERSITY SEARCH WITH A CLEAR VISION: find a reputable institution to study physics that also offered a smaller, intimate setting with an international flavour.

Originally from Los Angeles, California, Chung ventured to Portland, Oregon, during high school. But when it came time to choose a university, she decided to go beyond national borders and look for a more global educational experience.

UBC Okanagan stood out as the perfect fit, not only providing a world-class physics program but also a diverse and welcoming community. The university’s emphasis on balanced teacher-to-student ratios appealed to Chung, ensuring a personalized and enriching learning experience.

While Chung’s primary focus of study is physics, university enabled her to reignite a long-held passion for art history. That eventually led her to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in physics and a minor in art history and visual culture.

Chung says that art history classes help her engage the creative side of her brain, encouraging her to think differently about topics lacking a definitive answer.

“I’m excited about exploring critical thinking in the context of culture, power dynamics and gender relations,” she says, adding that studying the intersection of art history and physics is a fascinating way to understand the world.

“This kind of critical thinking intertwined with a creative perspective, encourages me to view things differently. Questioning who has examined them before, to think about why, and explore more diverse perspectives.”

In the realm of physics, Chung says there’s an acknowledgment that mathematics is a philosophy on its own; a unique way of analyzing, viewing and processing the world.

“I believe art history operates similarly—there’s a distinct approach to understanding how the world functions and how we navigate through it. This dual fascination with physics and art history has been an immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking journey for me.”

Through her studies in art history and visual culture survey classes—taken in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies—Chung is able to further analyze the Eurocentric, gender-biased concept of genius in both art and science.

“This helps shed light on the need for a more inclusive and diverse narrative in teaching; in both my art history and science classes, we question why certain figures are elevated in academic discussions and others aren’t.”

Chung says that she has seen that art history progressively re-evaluating and incorporating diverse perspectives, but the history of science remains entrenched in gender bias.

“This realization made me think about the pragmatic mindset prevalent among scientists; why should we care about the narrative of our history?

“I’m working to apply the principles of analyzing art or texts in art history to show the importance of delving into the biases ingrained in scientific journals.”

Chung believes there is room for art history’s analytical lens in the world of science.

“Thanks to my degree from UBC Okanagan, I can apply a fresh perspective to teaching math and science, addressing gender biases and exploring innovative approaches to educating future generations.”

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WHETHER HE’S HIKING A NEW PEAK or setting up cameras for field research, Dr. Adam Ford can’t help but see the Okanagan Valley’s incredible beauty—and the intense pressure the region is under.

“The Okanagan is exceptionally diverse ecologically,” says Dr. Ford, an Associate Professor of Biology in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science and the Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology (Tier 2).

“We have salmon swimming in large lakes right beside a desert with cacti and rattlesnakes, grasslands with badgers, and within a 60-minute drive you can be above the tree line in an alpine meadow with mountain goats and grizzly bears. It’s also a vibrant, food rich and urban place—one of the fastest-growing communities in Canada because people want to be here. It’s beautiful.”

With that agricultural and urban growth comes challenges to biodiversity, such as water limitations, development through wildlife corridors and the shrinkage of rare grasslands.

Plants have returned to the site of the devastating 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, and this area now supports a vibrant wildlife community. Between the City of Kelowna and the fire are many agricultural operations, including fruit orchards and vineyards, making this land some of the highest valued real estate in Canada.

As the new Director of the Okanagan Institute for Biodiversity, Resilience and Ecosystem Services (BRAES), Dr. Ford wants the institute—and UBC Okanagan—to support local communities, land, wildlife and water, offering research that helps build a more sustainable way of life in the Okanagan.

BRAES is one of five research institutes at UBC Okanagan, funded by the Office of the Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation to provide opportunities for researchers to collaborate and share knowledge across disciplines and into the community.

As the head of BRAES, Dr. Ford hopes to strengthen the institute’s research support network. His priorities include strong regional partnerships and speaking to the need for reconciliation, including support for indigenizing research programs and partnering with Indigenous communities, particularly in the Syilx territory where UBC Okanagan is located.

His background has positioned him well for the new role.

A landscape photo of the backsides of nine people who are standing at the crest of a hill. The wide angle shot juxtaposes the group against the mountains in the background and blue sky above.

Community leaders from Esk’etemc First Nation, BC Wildfire Service, non-governmental organizations and BRAES researchers gather to plan cultural and prescribed fire in the Cariboo region. Indigenous-led fire management is helping to reinvigorate cultural practices and restore populations of wildlife species like bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer.

Dr. Ford leads the Wildlife Restoration Ecology (WiRE) Lab, where he studies how human activity in landscapes affects interactions between large predators, prey and plants. The key goal of this work is restoration—the human-assisted recovery of nature. To do this, he and his lab partner with governments, Indigenous communities and other organizations to help people and wildlife co-exist more peacefully.

His past and ongoing research projects include an award-winning study of the tripling of a mountain caribou herd under Indigenous-led stewardship, informing on human/wildlife conflict with wolves in coastal BC and bears in the Rocky Mountains, and assessing the functionality of wildlife corridors in BC—or, areas set aside from human development to allow animals to move through the habitat.

“Dr. Ford brings energy, creativity and extensive research experience to the leadership of BRAES,” says Dr. Phil Barker, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “His work in conservation and regional collaborations are a perfect fit for the BRAES mandate, and I am looking forward to seeing how he will use this role to benefit not just the institute and our campus, but the wider sustainability conversation in the Okanagan.”

While many researchers in BRAES are biologists like Dr. Ford, interdisciplinarity is one of the institute’s key strengths.

A photo of a small deer eating grass

As an indicator species, mule deer are the “canary in the coalmine” that tells researchers about the health of the landscape. Dr. Ford helps lead the province’s largest mule deer study to date—the Southern Interior Mule Deer project—involving several graduate students, hundreds of trail cameras and GPS tracking of deer migrations.

BRAES connects researchers across disciplines, from biology to computational statistics to the humanities. For Dr. Ford, these diverse skills are essential to solving complex problems like climate change and sustainability.

“The world is a complicated place, and we need a lot of different ways of knowing to help solve these problems,” he says. “Western science can be a helpful tool, but it’s just one tool in the toolbox. To solve complicated problems, we need a diverse set of tools.”

In the future, Dr. Ford dreams of UBC Okanagan researchers having access to field research facilities in the Okanagan, coordinating with community partners on long-term biodiversity monitoring for the valley and hiring an interdisciplinary postdoctoral fellow who could work across faculties in BRAES.

“You can look at the recent wildfires in the Okanagan and see the need for the work BRAES members do to support better decisions and give the landscape a voice,” says Dr. Ford. “We care about this community, and we’re doing work that we believe will help the Okanagan.”

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What is your research focus, and why did you choose this area of study?

As a master’s student majoring in mathematics, I’m currently conducting interdisciplinary research on the intersection of machine learning and operations management. My research focuses on the applications of machine learning in service systems; particularly how textual data can be used to accurately predict customer wait times in service companies, or to improve scheduling appointments for telemedicine patients in health-care systems.

My work is driven my desire to enhance decision-making. My interest in this area stems from my curiosity about how machine learning can effectively enable service systems—and ultimately people—to make better decisions. What inspires me about this work is the potential consequences of my research on real-world problems facing both customers and business owners. In particular, our health and service systems.

Mohammad Mosaffa.

Why is your research relevant in today’s day and age?

Using statistical approaches to devise methods to improve performance through enhancing decision-making has potential for every industry. For instance, customer service is one of several industries moving online with the rise of digitization. In this space consumers achieving prompt and effective service depends heavily on accurate wait times to achieve consumer’s expectations. My research presents an innovative strategy, which will enhance wait time estimates by combining deep learning and text mining approaches to help boost customer satisfaction and loyalty. The findings could be applied for organizations in a range of sectors, including health care and e-commerce.

What’s the best advice you have for other students?

Throughout my time in higher education, I’ve become aware of the value of effort and a drive to learn. No matter your academic standing, my best advice to other students is to never stop exploring new opportunities and taking chances.

Remember, failure should not be feared. It’s an essential step in the learning process. If we never make mistakes, we might never really understand how far we can push ourselves. To this end, I urge students to take on difficult challenges. Also, seek out a mentor or a supportive group to help you. Having a mentor with expertise in your industry can help you advance your academic and professional goals through priceless counsel and connection.

I also want to stress the value of curiosity and passion. The decision to pursue higher education can be difficult and time-consuming, so it’s crucial to pick a subject that you’re passionate about. When you’re interested in what you’re learning, the task becomes less of a chore and more of an enjoyable exploration of new ideas.

“Having benefited from mentorship myself, I’m committed to effectively training students and hope to positively influence the next generation.”

Who is your mentor and how have they influenced you?

My current mentors, Dr. Amir Ardestani-Jaafari and Dr. Javad Tavakoli, have profoundly shaped my research focus and direction. Under their guidance, I’ve been able to refine my research interests and develop a deeper understanding of the applications of machine learning in operations management. Both men have challenged me to think critically and encouraged me to explore new approaches in my research.

Beyond guiding technical aspects of my research, they have also been supportive mentors in terms of my personal and professional growth. Both professors have been helped me navigate the challenges of research and grow as a researcher. Their expertise, guidance and support have not only helped me achieve my research goals but also inspired me to excellence in my academic and professional pursuits.

What do you hope to do after graduation?

Research is a driving passion for me. Going hand-in-hand with that is my passion for teaching. Having benefited from mentorship myself, I’m committed to effectively training students and hope to positively influence the next generation. My next step is pursuing a doctorate in business with Cornell University, where I hope to achieve my goal of becoming a professor who conducts meaningful research to help improve decision-making.

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AS A SCIENTIST, MELANIE DICKIE FIRMLY BELIEVES in the power of data to inform decisions. As a person, she enjoys spending time in the outdoors and is passionate about caring for the environment. The combination of these personal feelings and her scientific interest come together to inform her research career on the pathways that link human-caused landscape changes to caribou—a threatened species in Canada.

Dickie’s passion for preserving and restoring ecosystems in Canada’s north stemmed from fieldwork she undertook in Nunavut during her undergraduate degree.

“It was during that trip I fell in love with the idea of how humans and climate change impact ecosystems, and how these factors combine to influence the natural world we live in,” she says.

Following her undergraduate degree, Dickie completed a master’s degree at the University of Alberta and then moved into the not-for-profit sector with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI). At ABMI, Dickie continued to dedicate her work to providing scientifically credible information to support land use and management decisions.

“Melanie has a knack for engaging with scientists, Indigenous communities and resource managers. She has excelled at cultivating an inclusive and curious environment within her research community.”

– Dr. Adam Ford

While working at ABMI, Dickie stayed closely connected to the academic world, attending conferences and interacting with researchers on social media platforms. One researcher that she found herself interacting with often was UBC Okanagan’s Dr. Adam Ford.

“I found myself and Dr. Ford on very similar threads on social media—threads about how humans are modifying the landscape, how data is used to support transparent decision making, and the role of Indigenous communities in the management of systems,” says Dickie.

A conversation at a conference eventually led to the development of Dickie’s doctoral research at UBC Okanagan. Dr. Ford’s experience working with different ecosystems and his focus on food webs presented a new way of approaching her research.

Melanie Dickie.

Dickie started her doctorate in biology at UBC Okanagan in 2020, under the supervisor of Dr. Ford in The Wildlife Restoration Ecology Lab (WiRE Lab). Through her PhD research, Dickie is exploring how human land use and climate intersect to influence the abundance of white-tailed deer. These animals are expanding deeper into caribou range where they were previously less abundant, and now act as a food source to bolster predator populations like wolves. This poses a threat to caribou, which do best in areas with low populations of predators.

Dickie’s research explores questions of what management interventions are available, how effective they are, and how they might be prioritized across the landscape to make the biggest impact for caribou. “Doing my PhD at UBC Okanagan has given me the room to push my research further,” she says. “I can research questions in broader ecological theory that can be used by decision makers.”

Dickie believes that research is about getting information to the right people and building relationships to ensure that information is used to make a difference. She hopes that her research will provide decision-makers with the tools they need to effectively manage caribou populations.

“Melanie has a knack for engaging with scientists, Indigenous communities and resource managers,” says Dr. Ford. “She has excelled at cultivating an inclusive and curious environment within her research community.”

Following the completion of her doctorate, Dickie sees herself working alongside academics, government and Indigenous communities for decades to come, continuing to reduce society’s effect on natural systems.

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