Where the Waters Meet

A TA’s award-winning work keeps compassion flowing

Hauling boxes out of a moving truck with her husband and new lab mates, UBC Forestry PhD candidate Stefanie Lane heard about a man whose reputation for compassion she would go on to model in her own work.

Stefanie arrived in Vancouver from Austin, Texas – after a brief stint collecting seeds in Oregon for the Chicago Botanic Garden – in 2018. At the time, UBC Forestry Postdoc. Jordan Burke (PhD Forestry’16) was in hospice with terminal cancer. While Stefanie did not have the opportunity to meet him, she was touched by what she learned about the much-beloved UBC Forestry sessional instructor and teaching assistant (TA) who was known for his sense of humour and offering beyond-the-call-of-duty care and attention to his students.

“Talking to people and reading about his life and work, it was very evident that Jordan was this powerful force of inspiration,” recalls Stefanie.

After completing her undergraduate studies in botany, Stefanie traveled to UBC to pursue an MSc in forestry and, later, a PhD. Specializing in tidal freshwater marshes, she has spent a lot of time thinking about the interface between rivers and the ocean where fresh and salt water mix.

Her current research involves measuring differences in above-ground vegetation, seed diversity and sediment after severe geese grazing. Observing and tracking how plant communities recover after this disturbance tells a story about their resilience and what to expect following similar events in the future.

“With time, geese eating the roots of plants can turn a vegetated marsh habitat into a mud flat, which can have negative consequences on, for example, juvenile salmon,” Stefanie explains.

Stefanie also mentors Forestry undergraduate students as a TA, a role in which she journeys with students through general plant biology as well as UBC campus’s diverse plant species and the art of specimen dissection.

“What I love most about TAing is helping students get to that lightbulb moment when they develop a deeper understanding of something they’ve learned, along with nerding out on a topic.”

In 2020, Stefanie received one of two inaugural Jordan L. Burke Memorial Awards in Forestry for Best Graduate Teaching Assistant in recognition of her exceptional mentorship of burgeoning foresters. The award gave Stefanie the opportunity to make her first connection with Jordan’s mother, April, and the Burke family.

“Meeting April, and sharing stories about our lives and talking about Jordan, has given me glimpses into who Jordan was,” says Stefanie. “I now think of him as a friend that I didn’t have the chance to meet.”

Despite the challenges of TAing during a global pandemic in which in-person learning was put on hold, Stefanie found innovative ways to connect with students through fun videos that enhanced their online learning experiences, and offered a healthy dose of compassion. Her efforts and out-of-the-box thinking did not go unnoticed, resulting in her receiving a second Jordan L. Burke Memorial Award in 2021.

“This scholarship is a way to continue Jordan’s passion and commitment to teaching and mentoring,” says April. “It extends ‘what might have been’ to dedicated students like Stefanie who can use it for their own support and inspiration, and to spread Jordan’s dedication to others.”

A thoughtful person by nature, Stefanie has run with the intent of the award in the guidance she provides to forestry students, some of whom may one day become TAs themselves. “Keeping his memory alive and the spirit of this award has reinvigorated me to be a compassionate TA,” says Stefanie. “Especially during the COVID-19 period of physical distancing, I’ve recognized how powerful of an impact this can have on a student’s life.”

Learn more about the Jordan L. Burke Memorial Award and donate:

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