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Meet a scientist: To study conservation, she studies people

Editor’s note: A 2017 survey found that 81 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. No, not a single one. At Conservation International, we have lots of scientists you should know. Here’s one

Studying nature is the work of environmental scientists. But studying the conservation of nature — how it works, and how it doesn’t — is as much about people as it about nature. 

Rachel Golden Kroner knows this well. A social scientist at Conservation International, she studies how societies manage and protect nature. Unsurprisingly, nature conservation is as complex as humans are, as she explained recently to Conservation News. 

Question: Why did you become a scientist?

Answer: I have always been interested in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields. As an undergraduate student, I spent a semester abroad in Ecuador, which sparked my interests in conservation and fieldwork. Through this program, I was able to visit the some of the most biodiverse places in the world, from the Amazon rainforest to the Galápagos Islands. I then went on to pursue a master’s in sustainable development and conservation biology, and then a Ph.D. in environmental science and policy.

The more I learned about environmental science and conservation, the more interested I became in understanding the Earth and how we interact with it. 

As humans, we are shaping the planet and rapidly depleting our natural resources. Science is a tool that enables us to learn from what we have done in the past, make predictions about the future and point to a better way forward — so I have dedicated my career to helping protect the planet.

Q: So what does a social scientist like yourself have to do with environmental science?

A: At the end of the day, conservation is all about people. We are changing the land, using natural resources and even altering the climate through our behaviors.

Social science research is so important because humans and our interactions with the natural world are so complex. It takes a lot of different fields of study to understand these interactions, like geography, political science, anthropology and economics — just to name a few. Bringing together methods from different disciplines in the social and natural sciences can help us understand the world better.   

Most of my research focuses on effectiveness of environmental governance systems, such as protected areas — stretches of land or water set aside to limit human activity. Think national parks, wildlife refuges, indigenous and community-run reserves. 

For example, after the Amazon fires [in August 2019] we learned from the data that most of the fires were burning outside protected areas and indigenous lands. These two types of environmental governance systems are completely different, but they were both effective at reducing fires in certain areas. My job is to understand the ebb and flow of these areas, providing foundational research to figure out what works, where and why in conservation.

If we can understand how humans manage and interact with nature, we have a better chance at improving our efforts to protect the planet in the long term.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, I am developing a Conservation Governance Atlas along with colleagues at Conservation International and partners. This is a tool with fascinating implications that will illustrate the unique types of conservation areas and how they have changed over time. The Atlas will include public and private protected areas, indigenous lands and market-based mechanisms and other lands and waters that contribute to conservation. Data on these systems are currently scattered around the world – but will soon be compiled in one place. This will help us answer key questions about the scale, types and impacts of different conservation systems, informing future decisions about how and where we protect nature.

Protected areas are the cornerstone of humanity’s efforts to conserve plants and wildlife. They are really important for all life on Earth, including humans. For example, in the Chingaza-Sumapaz-Guerrero corrido region of Colombia, a focus area for Conservation International, protected areas help provide fresh water to the city of Bogotá’s 8 million residents.

Q: How is your research being used?

A: I am really proud of our work to elevate the topic of legal reductions to protected areas, a phenomenon known as PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement). Protected areas are essential to conserving nature, and establishing them is just the beginning — keeping them intact is a crucial process that requires time, effort and funding. 

My recent paper found that governments have removed more than 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) from protected areas and downgraded protections for an additional 1.65 million square kilometers (637,000 square miles). By monitoring protected areas in the long term, including tracking PADDD events and securing better protections, we can help ensure that protected areas fulfill their promise to conserve nature in the long term. 

At Conservation International, we have great partners all around the world and a global network that helps us connect these findings with the people who need to know about it. By learning from past PADDD events, governments and communities can make smarter decisions about forest protection in the future, especially as we approach 2020 — a crucial year for climate and biodiversity action.

Q: Do you have any advice for young women interested in pursuing a career in STEM? 

A: Women often face particular professional challenges, especially in the STEM fields, from confidence issues to equal pay. It’s crucial to find the intersection between what the world needs, what you like to do, what you are good at, and what you can get paid for. 

Every scientist should have a growth mindset. Instead of thinking “I am good at this” and “I am not good at that,” a growth mindset is all about being open to learning and adapting. In the sciences, this means giving yourself space to grow and reflect is really important because there is always so much to learn – new research, methods and even disciplines. I just finished my Ph.D. but I am not done with learning — in fact, I am taking a course this week to master a new statistical technique! 

Rachel Golden Kroner is a social scientist at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Rachel Golden Kroner with a ceiba tree in the buffer zone of Tambopata reserve in Peru. (© Conservation International/Rachel Golden Kroner)

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