rocks and water in forest
News Blog

Spotlight Series: Elsa Ordway and the Creativity of Science

Elsa Ordway is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and got her start with the ForestGEO network at the 2019 Analytical Workshop.  In her research she has used data from both the Danum Valley and Lambir FDPs (both Malaysia).  She highlights the need for academia to have more honest conversations about mental health, she celebrates the role of creativity in scientific endeavors, and, in her spare time, she enjoys exploring the greater Los Angeles (USA) area.

When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist/work in forest ecology? How did you decide to go down this career path?

That’s a tough question. When I was finishing my undergraduate education, I knew there were a lot of career paths that I didn’t want to pursue, but I couldn’t pin down what path I specifically wanted to be on. A mentor told me not to focus so much on defining what I wanted to be, but instead to pursue my interests and be open to the fact that the job I would end up in may not exist yet. In the end, I landed a job that has existed for quite a long time. Her advice has been continuously helpful. I am where I am today because at each new chapter and opportunity, I re-evaluate my passions and goals. 

If I really had to put a finger on it, I think that three formative moments shaped my somewhat circuitous career path: studying abroad in Ghana as an undergraduate, working for a conservation organization in the Comoros and Madagascar, and working as a research technician on Bioko Island, in Equatorial Guinea.  

Image caption below.
A forest on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea, where Elsa first began exploring tropical forests.  Photo credit: Elsa Ordway

What led you down the path to your current job? What has been your biggest challenge in getting to this point in your career?

I never thought I would go to graduate school, let alone pursue a career in academia. But, I realized how much I enjoy doing research, being in the field, and working in tropical forests. For a long time, I was convinced that I would work for an international research organization. During my Master’s and PhD, however, I was exposed to the level of creativity you can bring to science as a researcher in academia – provided you can get the funding, resources, and support. I also worked with and met several phenomenal scientists who are not only working at the cutting edge of their fields but are also deeply engaged in translating their work into impact, for example, via working with local government agencies or partnering with community organizations to identify scientific questions that are policy relevant. That approach isn’t for everyone, but seeing people do it from within an academic institution left a strong impression on me.

There have been lots of challenges that I’ve struggled with in getting to this point in my career. Some of the biggest have been overcoming imposter’s syndrome and working through the mental health challenges that come with this career. Both are things that I believe should be discussed more openly, since they’re far more common than is often recognized. Knowing that there are support systems available and where to turn can make a huge difference, whether that is reaching out to family members and friends, or seeking professional help through your institution.  

When did you first get involved in the ForestGEO network?

In 2019 I participated in the ForestGEO Annual Workshop in Singapore. It was a whirlwind. I participated because some of my research utilizes data from the Lambir and Danum plots in Malaysia for ecosystem demography modeling. Meeting people involved in the network from all different career stages and backgrounds was a lot of fun and left me energized.

Group photo on a canopy bridge above forest.
A photo from the ForestGEO Annual Workshop in Singapore, on the TreeTop canopy walk near Bukit Timah.  Pictured, left to right: (front) Sara Germain, Daniel Zuleta, (middle) Raquel Fernandes de Araujo, Gabriel Arellano, Melina de Souza Leite, (back) Elsa Ordway.  Photo credit: Tourist in Singapore

What is the most interesting or unique aspect of the site(s) where your research is based?

As a relative newcomer to the network, my research has been using data from the Lambir and Danum sites, but I’m also actively seeking opportunities to work at some of the plots in Africa, especially in Gabon and Cameroon, where I have past experience doing field work and research. 

That said, there are a lot of interesting and unique things about the Lambir and Danum sites. One thing people may not know is that they have some of the tallest trees in the tropics, many of which are in the Dipterocarpaceae family. In fact, the tallest known tree in the tropics was recently discovered not too far from the Danum plot, ringing in at 100.8 m tall (Shenkin et al. 2019).

Two pink seeds on top of a large, green leaf.
Seeds from a Shorea species (in the Dipterocarpaceae family).  Photo credit: Elsa Ordway

What questions are you currently addressing in your research/site?

At the moment, I’m working on… too many things. One paper that we recently submitted explores the relative importance of remotely sensed leaf traits and canopy structure in characterizing the spatial distribution of functionally distinct tropical forest types. Another project that we’ve been working on is evaluating the capability of a terrestrial biosphere model (the Ecosystem Demography model) to capture fine-scale variation in ecosystem function across varying topographic and edaphic conditions.

What is your favorite part about your work?

I love the variety of things I get to work on, and that I get to creatively direct the work I do. The lens through which we view and experience the world very much influences the kinds of questions we ask, the methods we choose to use, the inferences and conclusions we emphasize. Recognizing the caveats that come with this personal imprint on the scientific process also helps me embrace the agency I have. One example of this in my research is the influence it’s had on my desire to work outside of disciplinary confines and collaborate in interdisciplinary teams. The scientific process can be also messy, but I love embracing that messiness as a part of the learning process. I’m also motivated by a good challenge, and there are plenty of those every day.

Black except for a large circle in the center, looking up into a tree canopy, where lianas, tree trunks, and leaves are visible.
Hemispherical photo from a forest in Sabah Malaysia.  Photo credit: Elsa Ordway

What do you like to do when you’re not studying forest dynamics? 

So many things! I love to get outside, rock climbing in the Sierra, gardening in my backyard, or running with my dog. I can also be a bit of an introvert and love spending time (if I have it) sewing, knitting, and reading at home. Exploring LA has been keeping me fairly preoccupied lately. There are so many museums, parks, trails, and beaches to explore. The LA River is one of my new favorite places. It’s a fascinating urban riparian ecosystem, with a surprising number of bird and fish species, and also a lot of complex social and political issues layered in, including gentrification impacts on surrounding neighborhoods and spotlighting the need for solutions to support unhoused Angelenos.

Web Presence

Ordway Lab | Twitter

Selected Publications

Brando, P.M., Paolucci, L., Ummenhofer, C.C., Ordway, E.M., Hartmann, H., Cattau, M.E., Rattis, L., Medjibe, V., Coe, M.T., & Balch, J.  (2019).  Droughts, Wildfires, and Forest Carbon Cycling: A Pantropical Synthesis.  Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 47: 555-581.

Ordway, E.M., & Asner, G.P.  (2020).  Carbon declines along tropical forest edges correspond to heterogenous effects on canopy structure and function.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117,(14): 7863-7870.

Ordway, E.M., Asner, G.P., & Lambin, E.F.  (2017).  Deforestation risk due to commodity crop expansion in sub-Saharan Africa.  Environmental Research Letters, 12(4): 044015.

Ordway, E.M., Elmore, A.J., Kolstoe, S., Quinn, J.E., Swanwick, R., Cattau, M., Taillie, D., Guinn, S.M., Chadwick, D., Atkins, J.W., Blake, R.E, Chapman, M., Cobourn, K., Goulden, T., Helmus, M.R., Hondula, K., Hritz, C., Jensen, J., Julian, J.P., Kuwayama, Y., Lulla, V., O’Leary, D., Nelson, D.R., Ocón, J.P., Pau, S., Ponce-Campos, G.E., Portillo-Quintero, C., Pricope, N.G., Rivero, R.G., Schneider, L., Steele, M., Tulbure, M.,G., Williamson, M.A., & Wilson, C.  (2021).  Leveraging the NEON Airborne Observation Platform for socio-environmental systems research.  Ecosphere, 12(6): e03640.