Beyond Measure: Professor Peter Marshall

A captivation with the outdoors attracted Professor Emeritus Peter Marshall to forestry, but a love of teaching kept him transfixed for over four decades. After officially retiring at the end of Dec. 2021, Peter is getting set for what lies ahead. A much-beloved professor of forest measurements and biometrics in the Faculty of Forestry – and recent recipient of the ABCFP Distinguished Forest Professional award – Peter shares memories of the lessons he has learned throughout his career, along with his enduring passion for the profession.

What drew you to forestry?

As a child, a lot of my summers were spent outdoors with my mother’s family either working on the farm, going fishing with my uncle and the like. I knew that I wanted my career to be outdoors and landed on studying forestry with the goal of specializing in wildlife management. During my BSF at the University of Toronto (U of T), I discovered that forestry involved math and statistics, which were things that I was good at and enjoyed in high school. My guidance counsellor tried to steer me towards engineering, but I was committed to forestry at that point and my interest in math drew me to forestry measurements and biometrics.

Peter Marshall circa 1983

What prompted you to become a teacher?

Well, I taught my first university course in 1977 during the second year of my master’s program. My supervisor was going on sabbatical and asked me if I would teach his course. I was more scared of him than I was of teaching and soon discovered that I liked it. I guess I did all right because U of T offered me a job as a lecturer. After coming to UBC to complete a Ph.D. in forest management, the Faculty of Forestry asked me to teach the forest mensuration course (FRST 236) and a forest sampling course (FRST 431) during my second year, which was in 1981/82. Just as I was finishing up my Ph.D. at the end of 1983, a full-time position became available and I was offered the job.

What are some of the most memorable moments from your teaching career at UBC? 

I’ve always enjoyed the research side of my career and the breadth of research questions you can ask within the area – from modelling carbon in the forests of Nepal to modelling forest growth and yield using laser scanning and 3D images. Another highlight has been travelling to many different places. In the past 10 to 15 years, I spent a lot of time in China helping to set up transfer programs for students there. Having spent some time there in the early 1990s and then around two to four times per year since around 2010, I witnessed the speed of the country’s economic development – not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but in many other cities – as well as an increasing openness to sharing ideas and information.

How have forest measurements and biometrics evolved over the years?

Technological innovations have significantly changed the application side of things, including the measurement instruments we use. My undergraduate papers were typed on a manual typewriter, my master’s thesis on an electric typewriter and my Ph.D. dissertation on a mainframe computer using word processing software. In the quantitative world, the ability to run things on personal and field computers, access powerful software tools and use remote sensing technology to inventory forest biomass and the like has been a huge change. 

Why has it been important for you to serve the province along with the forestry profession through membership on several committees, governing councils, boards and cooperatives?

I have always been proud to be a forester, and these links to government and industry have provided an opportunity for me to stay connected to the profession and see the practical applications of theoretical developments. Also, it’s another way to stay in touch with some students I’ve taught.  

What do you do to unwind?

I like to cook. I used to play a lot of hockey, but these days I stick more to watching sports. Instead, I keep active by walking at least 15 kilometres per day. And I like to read.  

Is there a book you would recommend?

One that I enjoy that’s related to my field is The Lady Tasting Tea by David Salsburg. It tells the story of Ronald Fisher, one of the founders of modern statistics, along with many other early statisticians, in an entertaining and non-technical way.

What’s next for you?

Well, despite having just retired, I taught again at UBC this past spring, and I continue to serve on several committees, both provincially and nationally. I will likely also do a bit of consulting on the side. Once the pandemic is more under control, my wife and I hope to travel.


Led by our very own Development and Alumni Engagement Office, and shaped by valuable feedback from our alumni community, the Spring 2022 issue of Branchlines showcases the dynamic and multifaceted fields of forestry. 

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