Forestry Alumna Achieves Top Ranks in Academics and Athletics

Amanda Asay loves a challenge. This year she completed her PhD in the Faculty of Forestry while also maintaining her position on the Canadian national women’s baseball team, a post she has held for 15 years. A few years ago, she was working on her masters degree, playing baseball on the national team, and playing hockey for the UBC Thunderbirds. Before that, it was NCAA hockey and softball at Brown University, Canada’s national baseball team, and an undergraduate degree in biology with a focus on ecology and evolution.

Continuing the trend, Amanda is currently working in the Kootenays on a three-year research project, while also studying for her Registered Professional Forester designation.

This tendency toward high achievement runs in Amanda’s family, who are all UBC alumni. Her mom is a retired nurse; her dad is a retired secondary school biology teacher, and her brother, after receiving a masters degree in management, went on to UBC’s dental school and became a dentist.

Born and raised in Prince George, BC, Amanda started playing baseball at age five. She soon discovered that she loved everything about the game, and played little league growing up. She balanced baseball with hockey, and excelled in both sports.

In 2005, at age 17, Amanda was named to both the Canadian women’s baseball team and the British Columbia women’s hockey team. She received a hockey scholarship from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and played three years in the NCAA.

“I was injured in the spring of the 3rd year of my bachelors degree, and I didn’t play hockey when I returned in the fall for my final year” Amanda says. “When I graduated, I knew I wanted to continue studying ecology and evolution. I had some playing eligibility left and I knew the coach and some players on the UBC Thunderbirds, so I came back to Vancouver to do my masters degree and to keep playing hockey.”

In 2011 Amanda connected with Professor Suzanne Simard in the Faculty of Forestry, who helped her establish a clear focus for her graduate research. “I was really curious about the role of mycorrhizal networks in kin recognition and selection, and specifically how that works in interior Douglas fir,” she says.

Mycorrhizal networks are the below-ground connections among trees and other plants that allow them to benefit mutually via fungal filaments (called hyphae) and root systems. These networks are known to assist in nutrient exchange as well as signaling.

“Kin recognition in seedlings is not well understood, and I wanted to explore the role of mycorrhizal networks in helping seedlings identify their genetic relatives,” she says. “We were able to show kin recognition and enhanced resource sharing among kin in the greenhouse, but less so in the field.”

Amanda received her masters degree in 2013, and then began doctoral research under Suzanne Simard’s supervision. “I wanted to look at the performance and morphology of kin seedlings compared to non-kin at different planting densities and in different environments,” she says.

Amanda’s research indicated the cooperative behaviours shown by Douglas fir kin seedlings can be reduced by very high or very low planting densities, reduced mycorrhizal prevalence and the addition of other species to the community. Her work may have implications for forest management, particularly around legacy trees and their locally-adapted seed, as well as climate change impacts affecting the growth range of specific species.

At the same time as Amanda was doing her undergraduate and graduate studies and playing varsity hockey, she kept her position on Canada’s national women’s baseball team. The team competed in World Cup tournaments every two years, and in US tournaments in off years. “I’ve been really lucky to travel around the world and represent Canada,” she says.

The Canadian team won the bronze medal at the 2006 World Cup, and Amanda was named to the tournament all-star team as well as winning MVP of the Canadian team. Canada took the silver in 2008, bronze again in 2012, and bronze at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

“I have so many wonderful memories with the national team,” she says. “The players are incredible and the coaching staff have been great. I keep playing because of them.”

Amanda is currently working on a BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development project in the Kootenay region. Based in Nelson, she is studying three 25-year-old partially-cut stands of trees in the area, observing and investigating the impacts of partial cutting in terms of carbon sequestration, timber value, fire and forest health.

And of course she’s playing baseball whenever possible.

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