By Jennifer Molnar, Managing Director and Lead Scientist of The Nature Conservancy's Center for Sustainability Science
Diving among coral reefs. Hiking into the mountains to study bears or rare plants. This is likely how you picture a conservation scientist getting a start in fieldwork.
I actually started out standing in a hard hat and steel-toed boots next to a drill rig, collecting soil and water samples to find the extent of a plume of petroleum in groundwater.
I had always loved science and math, and wanted to pursue a career where I could help fix environmental problems. I grew up camping with my family — hiking, kayaking, with a growing passion for nature photography. My curiosity about nature was piqued by my father, a science teacher. He encouraged me to explore and learn about wildlife behavior, but also the changes we saw — from the effects of acid rain in the Adirondacks to the glaciers in Alberta that had receded since my parents had visited decades earlier.
So I began my career as an environmental engineer. I enjoyed the challenge of understanding complex systems — tracking down where pollution comes from, where it goes in the environment, and how to clean it up. After a few years, I decided to shift my career to conservation, where I saw the chance to make a difference proactively protecting ecosystems at a larger scale. So after going back to graduate school, I came to The Nature Conservancy, bringing my love of problem-solving to conservation science roles.
In the dozen years since I began working in conservation, I've seen the scale of our efforts grow. Beyond protecting individual preserves, we are thinking about our work at broader scales, and recognizing the inextricable links between the health of ecosystems and the people who live in those landscapes. We are also seeking to have larger impact through global-scale strategies -to transform how society uses the critical resources in rivers, on lands or in our oceans, or how cities relate to nature, or how we can tackle climate change. We are working with ever more diverse partners, from development organizations focused on human health to global corporations.
I now lead an innovative Conservancy program, the Center for Sustainability Science, which has the goal of helping us translate our conservation science knowledge and data to inform and influence companies and governments. This often requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of decision-makers — who likely aren't thinking about conservation or nature — and understand what they do value, and how investing in nature can be a solution for them.
It is exciting to see the aligning of efforts across sectors to solve global-scale challenges. And even more than ever, we need to bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives to our conservation work, including conservation biology, but also expertise like engineering, economics, and social science, as well as experience working with different communities and cultures.
I may not have had the typical career path for a conservation scientist, but here are some things I have learned along the way:
Have confidence in your strengths. Studying engineering, there were times that I was one of less than a handful of women in a class of dozens, and female professors were rare. But looking back, I was lucky to have diverse role-models early in my career. I worked with women who had very different styles and approaches to their leadership roles. It gave me the confidence to build on my own strengths, without needing to fit a mold.
Pursue your passion. There are a growing number of avenues you can take to contribute to conservation and science. Look for ways to apply your skills and interests.
Try different things. Take the opportunity to pursue new challenges and interests — whether new directions at work, or volunteer projects in your personal time. My time as an engineer in the private sector gave me skills and perspective that are crucial to the work I do today in conservation.
Broaden your knowledge and perspective. The field of conservation is rapidly evolving, and requires collaborations across cultures, in rural villages and in boardrooms. Read widely. Take advantage of opportunities to work on diverse project teams in school and at work.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a good time to reflect on the role of women in conservation, and encourage more to join the effort. The scale and diversity of solutions that our planet — and society — needs are great. With dynamic collaborations and creative problem-solving, it is an exciting time to be able to contribute.