An ‘accidental professor’ leads Stanford’s Faculty Senate

Elizabeth Hadly, professor of biology and faculty director of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, chairs the Faculty Senate, which is celebrating its 50th year at Stanford as it tackles such issues as student well-being, diversity, sustainability, free speech and long-range planning.

Biology Professor Elizabeth Hadly calls herself an “accidental professor.” After earning her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, in integrative biology, she was initially terrified at the idea of standing in front of a classroom of eager students.

But 20 years after becoming a faculty member – first at Montana State University and now at Stanford – Hadly isn’t just a well-regarded teacher and researcher. She is also leading her colleagues as head of the Faculty Senate.

Elizabeth Hadly

Elizabeth Hadly, biology professor and faculty director of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, chairs Stanford’s Faculty Senate. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Hadly teaches courses in biology, Earth sciences and environmental science; directs activities at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve; leads a lab that performs research on projects ranging from bat diseases in Costa Rica to tiger genomes in Asia; and works with California Gov. Jerry Brown on climate change issues.

Despite those extraordinary demands on her time, Hadly welcomed the chance to lead the senate after having served as a member. The senate is celebrating its 50th anniversary at Stanford as the cornerstone of academic governance and the main instrument for faculty participation in setting policy and making decisions on academic affairs.

“Serving on Stanford’s Faculty Senate has been illuminating – both as a place to learn about the challenges a major university faces and as a forum for hearing from unique faculty perspectives,” Hadly said.

“Our faculty, elected by their peers, care deeply about Stanford’s educational and research mission and, when leveraged as a democratic senate, provide thoughtful direction for navigating the big ship that is Stanford.”

Some of the issues the senate is focusing on this year under Hadly’s leadership include student well-being, diversity, sustainability, free speech and the university’s long-range planning process.

Focus on climate change

Hadly’s research at Stanford centers on the role of environmental change in the ecology and evolution of animals, primarily mammals. Her lab is non-traditional – no one is working on the same thing as anybody else. Current research ranges from the rise of small mammals in the Anthropocene and the bioaccumulation of mercury in terrestrial ecosystems to the aforementioned tiger genomics and bat diseases. This breadth of topics has led to collaborations with researchers across the university, a practice Hadly endorses.

Observing habitat and biodiversity loss and the human health impacts of environmental degradation can be discouraging work, but Hadly can see hope for the future through work that started in California.

Five years ago, Hadly and her husband, Anthony Barnosky, professor emeritus in integrative biology at UC Berkeley and executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, were contacted by the governor’s office about their paper “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” published in Nature. This led to the development of a scientific consensus statement spearheaded by Brown, Barnosky and Hadly. The statement synthesized key scientific findings from disparate fields into one unified message. It is now endorsed by more than 1,500 researchers from 89 countries.

The couple recently returned from Oslo, where they joined Brown, his wife, Anne Gust Brown, Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen and heads of the National Academy of Sciences from 10 countries in a historic meeting designed to stimulate dialogue between scientists and policy-makers.

Participants discussed their stark findings from climate research with a focus on how scientific facts can be more effectively communicated and disseminated to drive action and better inform policy- and decision-making.

Guiding Jasper Ridge

As a biologist and faculty director of Stanford’s Jasper Ridge, Hadly doesn’t have to go far to observe a complex ecosystem. She is responsible for guiding the educational activities afforded by this biologically and geologically diverse 1,200-acre preserve, located just 20 minutes from the Stanford main campus.

Since their appointments last year, Hadly and Barnosky have brought together faculty members from six Stanford schools, staff members, community members and researchers from field stations and preserves around the globe to participate in developing a strategic plan for the preserve.

The planning process is raising questions about the role of preserves in the face of an uncertain future. Hadly said she sees opportunities for prototyping solutions, advancing knowledge and creating networks among researchers and others whose work involves protected places.

“It’s a huge honor to inherit the leadership of this place,” she said. “This is an amazing opportunity to enhance our work in communicating about the effects of environmental change. Jasper Ridge is an irreplaceable natural laboratory for studying how nature works, how humans have shaped a landscape and how fundamental research can lead to new discoveries that can have broad impact. Perhaps most importantly in this dynamic world dominated by humans, we hope it is a place to reinvent what we ‘conserve’ in nature when all its parts are changing.”

The path to academia

Hadly’s interest in science was partly spurred by frequent visits to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History during her elementary school days in Washington, D.C. Born into a military family, Hadly moved often, but nature remained a constant and one of her favorite activities throughout childhood.

“There was nothing I loved more than going to the Smithsonian on Saturdays and exploring the exhibits,” she said. “My mother took me to hear National Geographic talks by people such as Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and the Leakeys. I just couldn’t learn enough about evolution.”

A well-thumbed copy of the 1968 Time/Life classic Early Man by Francis C. Howell still occupies a spot on her office bookshelf, and she takes particular delight in the memorable fold-out illustration of human evolution, titled “The Stages of Man.”

Although she knew she would pursue science in some form, the road to a doctorate wasn’t straightforward for Hadly. Initially majoring in pre-med at the University of Colorado, she realized she was more interested in observing human activity in the fossil record than treating human disease and switched to anthropology. During the summers, archaeological field work throughout the Southwest and Wyoming fueled her passion for outdoor discovery.

Yellowstone National Park occupies a special place in her heart. She began working there in 1982 as a volunteer, leading tours of West Thumb Geyser Basin. She lived for a few summers in backcountry cabins, packing by horseback and monitoring biodiversity. An opportunity to participate in a study to determine if elk were native to the region led to more field work and eventually a full-time job with the U.S. National Park Service. Impressed with her work, the Park Service later funded Hadly’s pursuit of a master’s degree in quaternary science at Northern Arizona University.

Yellowstone is also where she met her husband. They bonded over their mutual study of paleo wood rat middens, which are the piles of stuff pack rats accumulate. The couple eventually relocated to Berkeley, where Barnosky was offered a faculty position and Hadly pursued her doctorate under the direction of James Patton.

‘Accidental professor’

Hadly claims she didn’t set out to teach, which is why she calls herself an “accidental professor.” Today, however, she is effusive when talking about teaching.

She received an early lesson in the power of helping others learn when she participated in a grading experiment in an undergraduate anthropology course. Participants agreed to swap grades with an assigned classmate. She had to learn the course material and then make sure the classmate who was responsible for her grade also learned it.

Not surprisingly, everyone who participated in the experiment received an A.

“We felt an obligation to each other to do our best, and in the process of teaching the material to another person, we came to understand it better. Passive learning doesn’t work well. And learning while teaching sticks,” she said.

Another key moment came early in her teaching career. Walking clear across the Stanford campus to give a lecture, she suddenly realized that she had forgotten her notes. Out of necessity she improvised, and in the process invented a whole new format for teaching the class.

“I saw the excitement of my students learning in real time, and it was transformative. I never went back to my old ways of teaching,” Hadly said.

She still loves “mixing things up” and experimenting with ways to learn and teach, such as producing podcasts and collaborating with non-scientists on projects.

The ultimate teaching experience for Hadly happens in the fall, on the first day of class in her freshman seminar.

“I absolutely love that day,” she said. “I love seeing how excited and nervous the students are, and hearing about their backgrounds and what they want to learn about. And I am lucky that I see many of them on their last days before graduation, too.”