It’s one o'clock on a Saturday in Boylston Hall and Ticknor lounge is buzzing with students interested in careers in conservation.
I arrived at the lounge just in time for the “Women for Wildlife” Panel, one of the final segments in the Harvard Conservation Society’s “Careers in Conservation” Conference. The congregation of students, faculty, and guest speakers outside Fong Auditorium brought in to perspective the broad scope of conservation enthusiasts that the group's founder, Whitney Hansen, College '17, had reached out to. Attendees hailed from all over—geographically and academically.
Upon entering the room, I recognized a few familiar faces from my own concentration, Environmental Science and Public Policy (ESPP), as well as a few friends who study Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB). While catching up with an OEB friend, a woman I had never met joined in on our conversation. Considering I didn’t know her, I wondered if she was in a different year. “What year are you?” I asked. “Oh, I’m a senior!” As I awkwardly scrambled to figure out a clever save for why I must have not recognized her, she admitted, to my relief, that she was from another school.
The conversation transitioned to how many schools and organizations that Whitney had contacted to make the event possible. I’d heard so much about Whitney within the few moments that I’d perused the information tables in Ticknor, but I had yet to meet her. I scanned the room, and spotted a tall student in a blazer, with a bearing less like a student listening to summer program details and more like a founder of an organization. This had to be her.
Before I was able to get over to her, Whitney had already shaken a few hands and directed multiple people to different parts of the lounge. I introduced myself, and as she spoke with eager enthusiasm about the team that put the event together, her eyes were darting around the room, making sure that everything was in order, ready to answer questions and give directions.
There were four guest speakers invited to the Women in Wildlife panel, each with extremely impressive backgrounds and accomplishments. Three of the speakers are founding members of the Women for Wildlife network, a group associated with Global Wildlife Conservation.
The first speaker, Dr. Francesca Cagnacci, a Hrdy Fellow from Harvard's Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department, began with a short anecdote of how her passion for wildlife started at a young age, turning in essays about a new animal every week to her elementary school teacher who never assigned them. She went on to speak of her research, studying how wildlife is affected by climate change, which has taken her from Italy to England to the Alps.
The next speaker, Dr. Claudia Sobrevila, introduced her career to us through the importance of fieldwork. Studying plant pollination biology, she says that being in the field observing nature helped her understand the complexity and interconnectedness of nature. Dr. Sobrevila’s Harvard experience was particularly influential for her, emphasizing the analytical skills and methods of effective communication that her education provided. She worked in environmental law at the World Bank, and as senior director of the Andes region at Conservation International, in addition to working with the Amazon’s protected areas and the amelioration of wildlife crime, like poaching. After tracing through her eventful career, Dr. Sobrevila ended her introduction by stating, “Career is kind of a mystery.”
Dr Cagnacci and Dr. Montagut pointed out the significance of effective communication skills, as finding a common language between non-science and science professionals is crucial in effecting change.
The third speaker was Dr. Renée González Montagut, who, having hailed from Mexico City, was interested in including human beings into the equation of nature conservation. Dr. Montagut spoke much about intersectionality during her introduction, in terms of the human interaction with the environment, such as the effects of human practices on the Mexican rainforests, as well as the intersection between science and politics, and the importance of the communication of scientific findings to non-scientists. Dr. Montagut also spoke to the importance of the analytical skills that she gained from her Harvard experience, which further helped her to bring together the research that she observed in the field and the politics that she had to encounter.
Dr. Montagut also spoke to the importance of the analytical skills that she gained from her Harvard experience, which further helped her to bring together the research that she observed in the field and the politics that she had to encounter.
The last speaker, Dr. Leanne Alonso began her career studying entomology, specifically fire ants. After 13 years at Conservation International, some time working in Biodiversity Consulting at the World Bank International Finance Corporation, and now working in the Himalayas on a Hydroelectric project, the main take away from Dr. Alonso’s career was that it takes many people to tackle conservation, and specialists are of the utmost importance. “Be an expert at something,” she asserted, giving an example of how her work in the Himalayas requires multiple perspectives to create strategies for using a watershed for hydropower. Biodiversity specialists, NGOs, voices from the local government, and scientists to design and monitor the infrastructure are all necessary to the success of the project.
Once Dr. Alonso finished her introduction, the rest of the panel was open to questions, the first being: What do you predict are developing fields in conservation?
Dr. Sobrevila responded first, saying that there are now so many more opportunities in many different areas, but she foresees agricultural expansion as a huge issue for biological conservation. She emphasized the importance of an understanding of policy and the role of economics and financing as a rationale for conservation. Dr Cagnacci and Dr. Montagut then pointed out the significance of effective communication skills, as finding a common language between non-science and science professionals is crucial in effecting change. Pulling from all of these responses, Dr. Alonso concluded with an example of building large infrastructure that would require assessments of the geology and biodiversity of the area. Effective communication would be necessary for the project’s success, with many specialists coming from a plethora of backgrounds to make the project possible.
She emphasized the importance of an understanding of policy and the role of economics and financing as a rationale for conservation.
Overall, the panel ended on the same note on which it started. The points that these wildlife professionals emphasized time and time again were:
Become an expert at something, because teams of specialists are needed for research excursions, the planning and building of public and private projects, and creation of policy.
2. Learn how to communicate properly
Being an expert requires being able to inform and persuade people in different fields about the topic on which one specializes, and being able to do so in a language that scientists and non-scientists can share is crucial.
3. There are many pathways
Each of the speakers spoke about the life-changing journey that their careers took them on. There was no straight-forward route, and they were all able to learn valuable skills at every step of the way.