Shauna-Lee Chai speaks about her research on tropical forest protection and how her PhD has shaped her career
Forty per cent of food crops are lost due to pests and pathogens and climate change is making the pathogen and pest cycle more unpredictable.Shauna-Lee Chai
Shauna-Lee Chai is passionate about working on wicked problems, about using her entrepreneurial skills to improve the lives of others and about seeing the big picture, something she says her experience as a Gates Cambridge Scholar contributed to.
Her expertise is in invasive plant species and for three years she was Board Director of the Alberta Invasive Species Council. Much of her work in Alberta also involved working with indigenous peoples in Canada and increasing their participation in natural resource management, through skills training, mentorship and business expansion. Shauna-Lee leads the Aboriginal Environmental Services Network – a network of about 300 Indigenous individuals and businesses who work or aspire to work in environmental fields. This sprung out of a project she worked on at InnoTech Alberta.
She recently moved to a new role as Director of Plant Health in British Columbia which draws on the work she did at Cambridge on invasive plant species.
Fittingly, 2020 was designated the International Year of Plant Health by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. “It was the perfect time to join,” says Shauna-Lee. “Forty per cent of food crops are lost due to pests and pathogens and climate change is making the pathogen and pest cycle more unpredictable.”
Shauna-Lee was born in Mandeville in Jamaica, the eldest of three girls. Her mum is a teacher and taught Shauna-Lee at high school before she moved to a boarding school in Saint Elizabeth for her final two years of school. Her father was a mechanical engineer. At school Shauna-Lee showed a determined streak, teaching herself history when she couldn’t be taught by a teacher due to a timetable clash. She also took part in entrepreneurial activities, designing and selling pencil cases, a foretaste perhaps of her later interest in innovation and enterprise.
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to study when she left school, but eventually chose zoology and botany at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. In her final year she did a research project on lizards. She caught lizards, marked them and relocated them to a different side of the campus and tracked their survival rates to see what happened to them in different habitats.
Shauna-Lee then did a master’s in forestry and ecology focusing on invasive species. Her dissertation was on white-tailed deer who had escaped from captivity after a hurricane and spread across parts of Jamaica. Shauna-Lee researched how many deer there were on the island, how far they roamed and how much they affected Jamaica’s forest regeneration strategy through grazing on seedlings. Her study was published on a local environmental agency’s website.
For the project Shauna-Lee worked with a local NGO the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust and through that contact she got a job as a conservation science officer working on invasive plant species. Her work was based in the Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park in eastern Jamaica, a biodiversity hotspot which was threatened by an invasion of wild ginger and coffee plants from people’s gardens. Her job involved replanting the mountainous area with native species. It was there that she met her Cambridge supervisor Dr Ed Tanner, who had done his PhD on the forest, one of the longest monitored tropical forests in the world. He encouraged her to apply to Cambridge.
She applied and was accepted, and chose first to sit in on MPhil classes in Geography where she was able to learn how to apply the Geographic Information System, a framework that enables researchers to capture and analyse spatial and geographic data, to her PhD research.
Shauna-Lee’s PhD focused on deforestation in a tropical forest in the Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park and effective methods for addressing it. She used satellite imagery to quantify the rate and extent of deforestation. She also looked at old plantation maps from the 19th century to figure out where the virgin forest existed and where the forest had regrown when slavery was abolished. “I wanted to see the difference between regrown and virgin forest,” she says.
The end result was an assessment of how effective protected area policies are at helping to reduce deforestation and fragmentation. It also provided important new data on the regrowth of secondary forests on abandoned agricultural lands and on how land use legacies manifest themselves in forest ecosystems today. Shauna-Lee finished her PhD early and published every chapter of her dissertation. Her focus has always been on impact and, coming from a developing country, on finding a job where she could earn a good income.
She says she didn’t know about Gates Cambridge before she applied to Cambridge, but that she felt very grateful to be part of the scholarship group. “I felt like a high roller,” she says. “I made lots of friends and loved the international nature of the programme. It was one of the highlights of my life.” She took on board the Gates Cambridge message of social leadership and, while doing her field work in Jamaica, joined a mentoring group for high school students called Horsesmouth.
Working with indigenous communities
When she left Cambridge Shauna-Lee headed to Canada. She had family there and she knew it had a fairly open immigration policy. However, her previous experience was all focused on tropical environments which made finding a job difficult. She eventually found a role at InnoTech Alberta, a research and innovation company which works with the government. Her first role involved ecosystem management, specifically finding ways to cultivate or relocate rare plants in the oil sands region that were being mined. She wrote a successful bid for an invasive plants programme for Alberta Parks and began building her contacts.
She stayed with InnoTech Alberta for nine years, during which time she rose from research scientist to Senior Research Scientist in Ecology and Program Lead for Indigenous Relations and then earlier this year she was appointed Senior Business Partner, Stakeholder Engagement which involved fundraising, building strategic relationships and industry and government relations as well as people management.
Through the oil sands work she began working with indigenous communities and felt a real affinity with them. “Coming from Jamaica where there is so much poverty I could identify with them and wanted to use science to help them,” she says. She started up an environmental programme for indigenous communities to train them in ecological science work so they were able to earn money collecting samples along the oil pipelines in Alberta where they lived. “They have a strong link to nature and the programme blended that with scientific methods,” says Shauna-Lee. “It was one of the most meaningful projects I have worked on and it was very satisfying to take an idea that others had spoken about and make it a reality.”
The project continues today, but in a different form. Shauna-Lee says that her role was focused on piloting new ideas and then passing them on, but she hopes it has opened the way for more collaborations with indigenous people on environmental protection.
Earlier this year, in September, Shauna-Lee took on a new role as Director of the Plant Health Unit of the government of British Columbia which is based within the Ministry of Agriculture. She says the role is more in line with her PhD work and involves protecting plants against viruses and pathogens in a managed agricultural environment to boost farmers’ yields.
Shauna-Lee , who has a six-year-old daughter, says Cambridge marked an important change in her. Before Cambridge, she says that, coming from a developing country, her interest was mostly on personal success and ensuring she was able to support herself. After Cambridge she says she has been drawn to developing other people, particularly younger women and giving back. “I always have that sense that you can help people to change and grow,” she says.