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Interview: How does one work with agroforestry and forest restoration at Columbia University?

Focali researcher Matilda Palm is currently working at Ruth DeFries lab at Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology Department (E3B) at Columbia University. Read this interview with her to find out how it was to move from Sweden to work and live in New York.

Photo: Jan-Olof Yxell

Photo: Jan-Olof Yxell

Matilda Palm was awarded a mobility grant from Formas/Sida which implies research funding for four years, whereof one year will be spent at E3B at Columbia University and four month at ICRAF (World Agroforestry Centre). The research project builds on Matilda Palm’s previous research on agroforestry and restoration of degraded land.

– This year at Columbia is an important part of the mobility grant I received from Formas/Sida which aims at exploring new collaborations and networks while continue to develop my research. I’m still affiliated with Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg.

 What have you done so far at Columbia University? 


– I have initiated two major collaborations with the lab group here at Columbia. The first one is the establishment of a long term research site close to the Khana National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India. The site is currently severely degrade paddy fields which are not utilized at the moment. The aim is to use existing knowledge and experience of successful agroforestry systems in India to initiate a restoration project. This summer a student from the department will conduct fieldwork at several sites in India and among other things conduct a baseline study at the Khana site. We anticipate that this will be a collaborative project with several researchers investigating restoration from many different perspectives.

– The second collaboration will also focus on restoration, but in this case restoration of degraded forest land in the south of India. This project is less developed but is aiming for a comparative study of natural regeneration and restoration with human impact, ranging from monoculture plantations, farm forestry and agroforestry in the form of home gardens.

– While in the US, I have been also been in contact with Lars Laestadius at the WRI headquarter in Washington discussing a national land restoration project for India, initiated by the World Resource Institute (WRI).

What is your goal with the year at Columbia? 

– My goals with this year is to establish a long term collaboration with Ruth DeFries and her team, a collaboration that I hope can be beneficial for others too, such as other members in the Focali network. Hopefully several of my colleagues from FRT (Physical Resource Theory) at Chalmers will come for the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security in October and might also be able to spend some at Columbia. This would be especially important for the PhD students to expand their own international research networks.

Are there any big differences of working at Chalmers and Columbia? 





– The working environment at Columbia University is very similar to many Swedish Universities and at the same time different in many ways. I think that the largest difference is the limited time to get to know each other in a relaxed way. We have very few joint lunches or coffee breaks, that kind of informal way of sharing information and discussing everything from research to the daily life that I have gotten used to. However, after a few months here I have managed to find my place in the group and don’t feel like a newcomer as much.


Besides your work, how was it to move with your whole family from Gothenburg to New York? 

– Writing the application, the thought of spending a year in New York with my family (partner and three children) felt exiting but unreal, so when I finally realized that it would actually happen I was a little bit taken off-guard. After a stressful year preparing for the move (including several trips over the Atlantic to find an apartment and a school for the children) we settled in an apartment in Harlem close to the University campus. The first few weeks were exhausting with difficulties settling here in the big city. However, now after some months, the family is finally enjoying the daily life here and has adapted both to the language and the new routines.


Interview conducted by: Maria Ölund, Project Coordinator of the Focali network

Photos: From Columbia University by Matilda Palm, photo of Matilda Palm by Jan-Olof Yxell

Image to the left: The view from Matilda’s office at Columbia University.

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