An overseas research symposium proved more rewarding than University of Lethbridge graduate student Rebeca Spencer (BA ’23) could have hoped for.

Not only did the summer workshop allow her to meet with a particular professor whose research she admired, Spencer’s experience provided her with newfound confidence as she pursues her master’s degree.

The research opportunity was made available through anthropology professor Dr. Jodie Asselin, an organizer of the first-time think tank titled, Anthropology of Political Forests in Europe. A total of 24 scholars from 17 different nations, including three graduate students, participated in the four-day workshop in the Netherlands. 

Spencer discovered she wasn’t out of her element, despite the high-profile researchers presenting, and the questions she and the other students asked allowed for more growth and learning on everyone’s part.  

“On the final day Dr. Asselin said, ‘the biggest thing I wanted you to get out of this is recognizing that you are a strong student, and that you do have things to contribute in these spaces. What you do with that is up to you, but I wanted you to recognize that,’ ” recalls Spencer, who had previous dealings with Asselin through the Community Bridge Lab  

The experience provided her with network opportunities with other students and researchers, and also helped answer questions she had about job prospects for those with a PhD in anthropology. 

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“It was really interesting to see the ways in which Dr. Asselin is carving out a career for herself; the ways that she's making connections and collaborations with people all across the world,” says Spencer. “It was a different type of work than I think we get to see as undergraduate students, where it's a professor that comes in and lectures about things that they've done or things that they've read.” 

Not only is she appreciative of the research opportunity made available by Asselin, but also the ongoing support of her professor, who also served as direct supervisor of Spencer’s honours thesis.

The goal of the workshop, made possible through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Connection Grant, was to bring together social scientists to share research on forest-related studies across Europe. Asselin has done extensive research on green policy in Ireland. 

While there is significant research coming out of Africa, South America and Asia in that regard, Asselin says there isn’t the same type of networking and sharing among researchers in Europe necessary to identify larger trends.  

“Europe is super interesting because you have the European Union (EU) – a central legislative body that has various forms of environmental policy – but they play out and are interpreted uniquely through all the different countries they are put in,” she says, adding the subject matter is particularly relevant to countries like Canada, which often follow the EU’s cue. 

The term ‘political forests’ refers to the manner in which the state and the environment come together under green policy in different cultural conditions. 

Looking at the state of forests in Europe through a social science lens is important, says Asselin, because climate change and biodiversity loss is not so much an environmental problem as a people problem. Science-based research can map changes happening to forests because of factors like climate change and can help shape policies, but she says people don’t always do what they’re asked. 

“Sometimes things go awry in how policies are interpreted and how they’re put in place. What actually occurs with the land is often quite distinct from what people wanted, and that can sometimes be quite harmful because there’s various social and cultural factors that were never really considered,” she says.  

The workshop has established a network among researchers and greater collaboration should follow. There are also plans to develop field schools specific to social science students, which would provide them the opportunity to collaborate with scientists and community members.  

Asselin says the next steps include better training of social scientists to provide them with a greater say at the policy-making table. The challenge is coming up with policies that are written loosely enough to be interpreted within the context of each nation – rather than “scalable, feel-good solutions that have worked elsewhere” – without being so open they can be manipulated or ignored. 

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