Libby Pansing

Libby Pansing goes from competitive snowboarder to biology PhD

December 9, 2019

Colorado native Elizabeth “Libby” Pansing spent her high school and undergraduate college years on the slopes, competing nationally in slopestyle (jumps and rails), half pipe, and boardercross. Her parents fostered a love of nature that led her to many adventures off the slopes as well: “I spent a considerable amount of time traipsing through the outdoors in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming,” she said.

In the 2000s, Libby watched as the mountain pine beetle killed countless trees “essentially in my backyard,” as she put it. In its “Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests,” the Colorado State Forest Service estimates that the beetle epidemic killed trees across 3.4 million acres. “I was fascinated by the scale of the disturbance and curious about the consequences of the outbreak for forest health, structure, and composition,” Libby said. Which is why she decided to major in ecology and evolutionary biology. This December, she earns her doctorate from the integrative and systems biology program. 

Libby focused her studies on exactly what brought her to graduate school in the first place—forest trees. Her research investigated how various tree species respond to wildfire frequency and size. “Anyone paying attention to the news during the last few years has likely observed that wildfires are becoming a more predominant subject every year,” she said. “This is because in many locations wildfires are becoming more frequent and larger than in previous decades, all while the time periods with weather conducive to wildfire lengthen.”

conifers flagged for research
Fieldwork documenting conifer recovery following the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Each flag marks a conifer that germinated since the fires. 

Focusing in and around Yellowstone National Park, Libby created a computer simulation model based on data she collected in the field to investigate how more frequent and larger wildfires might affect whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), which is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Whitebark pine is interesting because of how it regenerates: “Unlike most conifers that grow around Yellowstone that produce seeds that are dispersed by wind, whitebark pine seeds are dispersed by a bird, the Clark’s nutcracker, which harvests seeds from pinecones and stores them in seed caches that it uses for food,” she explained. Her results suggest that whitebark pine may be more resilient to larger and more frequent wildfires than co-occurring species.

Clark's nutcracker on white bark pine cone and white bark pine in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming
Clark’s nutcracker on a whitebark pine cone (photo by Diana Tomback) and whitebark pine in the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming.

Libby chose CU Denver because of its faculty. She specifically wanted to work with Diana Tomback, PhD, and Mike Wunder, PhD, who advised on her dissertation research. “Each has been a wonderful mentor to me, and their collective research experience and relevant expertise has been indispensable for my own development as a scientist,” she said.

Besides happily co-existing with forest species, Libby lives alongside her husband Aaron, who is also a CU Denver graduate, and their two furchildren, Cedar and Stark. She also volunteers for Rocky Mountain Lab Rescue.