When Judy Li studies the biology of a stream, her passion lies in the little-seen world of aquatic invertebrates — gill-breathing damselfly nymphs, pebble-encased caddisflies and backstroking copepods. Without these little-understood creatures that filter, scrape, shred or hunt their way through life, trout and other larger predators couldn’t live. Li studies the relationship of these unsung heroes to their aquatic world in her work as an aquatic ecologist and assistant professor at Oregon State University.
Whether she is investigating the food webs of a river system, mentoring a student or teaching a class of 80 undergraduates, Li’s focus has always been on relationships. She studies relationships between organisms and their environment, and between humans, history and natural resources.
“No matter what I am focusing on I want to know how things are connected,” she said. “I focus on patterns, processes, connections.” In addition to being an active researcher in many large watershed studies around the Pacific Northwest, Li has been instrumental in designing and teaching an innovative undergraduate course in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, called “Multicultural Perspectives in Natural Resources” (FW 340), that blurs the boundaries between traditional disciplines in natural resource sciences, history and social sciences.
The idea for a course that examines multicultural aspects of natural resources germinated during the early 1990s, a time of changing social climate at OSU. Occurrences of discrimination and harassment at OSU had heightened tensions among various groups. Students took their concerns to the university’s president and proposed a required course for undergraduates that would focus on cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as discrimination and its origins. After much work, the OSU Faculty Senate approved the Difference, Power and Discrimination (DPD) Program in 1992. With grants from OSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Li developed her course, one of several across the university that satisfied the new requirement for the baccalaureate core curriculum. “After years of encouraging students of color towards higher education, I saw that they had very different perspectives on natural resource issues,” Li explained. “I considered ways in which those in the majority could learn to appreciate the views of those in the minority. I got interested in highlighting these different perspectives about natural resource issues specifically.”
In her class, Li discusses history in the same way she approaches science. “For example, I don’t have a mind for dates,” she said. “Rather, I hunt for patterns in history, just like I hunt for patterns in nature when I’m doing research. In finding hidden patterns, I’ve found that history and natural resources are closely intertwined. I teach students to recognize relationships and the role of power and discrimination in cultural conflicts over our resource use. “
Many groups of people, including women and minorities, have played important roles related to natural resources in the western United States, but history has largely ignored these groups, said Li. People of color were first thought to be impediments to EuroAmerican settlers. In recent times, they have been cast as victims of conquest. But in reality, minority groups have been active participants in this country’s history, according to Li.
“We wouldn’t be who we are as a culture today without the contributions by Native Americans and the diverse immigrants who came during settlement of the West,” Li said. She cites historical examples of the British and French in fur trading, Chinese and Scandinavians in fishing, African-Americans in ranching, and the Japanese and Latinos in farming.
“There is a litany of stories out there that are no longer visible,” she said. “If you tell people’s stories, it helps people see that there are different perspectives, different ways of seeing things in this country.”
Li’s innovative course has been immensely popular for more than a decade and often fills to capacity. Former students say that Li prepared them well for problems they encountered later in their professional lives.
“Judy’s course helped me understand Alaska more,” explained Sue Mauger, Li’s master’s graduate who now works as a water quality specialist along Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
“For my job I have to go out into small native and Russian communities in Alaska and monitor water quality. Each community has its own personality and its own pattern of how they use and view the land, based on their history. The course made me more thoughtful of people’s opinions and values, and I take into consideration where they are coming from, their history.”
A few years ago, Li received a grant to develop her course for the OSU Extended Education curriculum. She enlisted the help of Margaret Lang, an OSU graduate in communications and art, and together they developed an award-winning online course that any student, around the world, can take.
Most recently, Li’s multicultural course has taken on yet another iteration. OSU Press has asked her to produce a companion book to her online course. Working with a wide group of western writers, including John Nichols and Elizabeth Woody, Li is editing and contributing to an anthology, which will be called “Finding Our Place.” In addition, Li is working on her own book on the Chinese American experience in California.
As members of a minority themselves, Judy and her husband, fisheries biologist Hiram Li, have always been interested in encouraging women and students of color into natural resource careers, where most jobs, until quite recently, have been held by Anglo males.
“I think being Asian has helped us open the door for other minorities,” Li explained. “They see that we are not the majority in these careers, and maybe it inspires them. We’ve had all the advantages. We want to help those who don’t have those advantages.”
In their long-term research projects in the John Day and Umatilla river basins, both Judy and Hiram have worked with local Umatilla tribe members and encouraged them to try college at OSU and pursue degrees in natural resource fields. Gene Shippentower, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians, met the Lis many years ago while they were working on reservation land. Keeping the suggestion of college in mind for a decade, he and his wife Cheryl, with kids in tow, finally came to OSU in the late 1990s, where Gene earned a degree in fisheries and Cheryl a degree in botany. The Shippentowers have taken their training home and now work as natural resource professionals for the Umatilla tribe.
“We had never lived off the reservation, so it was a big step for us to bring our family and come to college as older-than-average students,” said Shippentower. “If it weren’t for Judy and Hiram encouraging me, I never would have gotten my degree in fisheries, much less be getting my master’s now.”
One of Judy’s strengths as a research scientist is working with teams. She recently completed work with the Pacific Northwest Research Consortium — more than 30 scientists who analyzed land use, biological and demographic data for the entire Willamette watershed. The culmination of the group’s seven years of collaboration is the Willamette Basin Planning Atlas, published by OSU Press. Li is part of a new 10-year project examining the impact of modern forest practices on water quality, aquatic habitat and fish in forested streams. The Hinkle Creek Paired Watershed Study will house a public demonstration area on private forestland to showcase modern intensive forest management and the related aquatic studies.
In addition, Li is working with OSU fisheries biologist Guillermo Giannico and others to study the role of grass seed field drainages as winter habitat for native aquatic species, a cooperative project with Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station, the OSU Extension Service, several agencies and Willamette Valley grass seed growers.
Li inspires her colleagues as much as her students.
“Judy is and has always been a peer, a mentor to me, a competent scientist, a friend,” said Stan Gregory, OSU fisheries professor and Li’s advisor for her doctorate. “She was one of the first female faculty members in the department. She has been a major influence in the department and the direction it’s taken for the past 20 years.
“She’s willing to ask hard questions that help everyone better understand the issues,” Gregory continued. “She’s turned around our thinking and created a feeling of presence on campus that people need in their lives.”