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Published: 2023-10-13 Updated: 2023-10-17, 15:39

David Wardle: “Through knowledge we can save and restore ecosystems”

PROFILE What do Arjeplog, Singapore and New Zealand have in common? The answer is David Wardle, one of Umeå University’s new professors. He researches how ecosystems are affected by environmental change and how we can mitigate negative effects and restore threatened systems.

Image: Alexandra Granath

Since 1 June 2023, David Wardle has been employed as a professor at the Department of Ecology and Environmental Science at Umeå University. He is among the University’s most distinguished professors with about 400 peer-reviewed publications to his name, of which about 30 have been published in the prestigious journals Nature and Science. He has been cited more than 100,000 times and since 2006 has been included on every Highly Cited Researchers List published by the Clarivate or the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). He has also received a number of awards for his research. 

Interview with David wardle

David Wardle explain his research and how it has influenced policies and political decisions. 

David Wardle researches how above-ground ecosystems – such as plants and animals – interact with below-ground ecosystems – such as fungi and soil animals – and how these interactions are affected by global environmental changes caused by humans.

“What gets me up in the morning is my quest to better understand how ecosystems work and how they respond to certain global environmental changes driven by human activities, such as land use and species extinction,” says David Wardle.

It is very important for us to understand what we are actually doing, partly so that we know what kind of impact we are having.

By understanding how systems work and how humans affect them, we can also prevent their destruction.  

“It is very important for us to understand what we are actually doing, partly so that we know what kind of impact we are having, but also so that in the longer term we can understand how to mitigate these effects to ensure healthy functioning ecosystems,” he says. 

Influencing political decisions

David Wardle’s research has implications for policymaking, including the use of tree planting to mitigate climate change and how to manage invasive species, which often supress natural flora and fauna. 
For example, his research has informed a draft of the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s strategy for managing forested offshore islands, as well as the country’s strategy for monitoring the effectiveness of forest pests (such as insects, rodents and deer). 
“My research has provided policymakers with knowledge on how to best manage invasive species, to restore ecosystems to a more natural state,” says David Wardle. 
The National Parks Board of Singapore has also utilised his research in its strategies for dealing with the problems caused by overabundant wild boar in the country’s forested reserves.

Across much of the world

David Wardle’s academic career has taken him all over the world. He was born in New Zealand in the early 1960s, where he also grew up and was educated. He received his PhD in Canada before becoming a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Umeå. It was during this time that he met his Swedish wife, with whom he has two children. After 11 years here, he spent six years at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore before joining Umeå University as a professor in June 2023. 

Why did you decide to come back to Umeå?

“We like the environment here. Umeå has all the facilities you want in a city, but at the same time it’s not overwhelmingly big and it’s close to nature. There’s a nice, relaxed lifestyle here,” he says, mentioning that the snow was also a consideration.

“We like the different seasons and missed the skiing. There was a lot of pressure from the family to come back,” he says, smiling.

But his research continues to take him around the world. He conducts field studies on everything from the Arjeplog lakes to wetlands in south-east Asia and on invasive plants and animals in New Zealand. 

“I’ve worked on everything from the Arctic tundra to boreal forests and temperate forests. I have also worked on tropical and subtropical forests in recent years. The processes in these different ecosystems are actually not as different as you might think. They contain  organisms that perform similar functions and involve similar processes,” he says. 

Engaging with younger researchers

David Wardle will be officially inaugurated as a professor at Umeå University at the 2023 Annual Celebration. 

What does that mean for you?

“It gives me a certain autonomy to do things that I find really interesting and to work on research topics that I find fascinating, as well as to teach the kind of courses that I think are useful for students and that I think they will enjoy he says. 

I think it is one of my responsibilities as a senior professor to help nurture the next generation of excellent ecologists who can drive the field forward.

The younger generation of ecologists is close to David Wardle’s heart. Throughout his career he has mentored and supervised some sixty doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, most of whom are now successful researchers active in 17 different countries across all continents except Antarctica.

“I think it is one of my responsibilities as a senior professor to help nurture the next generation of excellent ecologists who can drive the field forward,” says David Wardle.