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Rachel Golden Kroner Interview
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Rachel Golden Kroner

Describe the project you’ll be conducting with your GWIS Fellowship funds. What do you hope to discover through this research, and how will the GWIS Fellowship help make this research happen?

I am a conservation scientist. I study protected areas – considered to be the “cornerstone” of conservation efforts worldwide – to understand how sustainable and effective they are. My dissertation work is focused in Ecuador and Peru – two of the most biologically and culturally diverse nations on earth and also two nations that host the most important carbon sink on Earth: the Amazon rainforest. To understand the conservation status of these regions, I study legal changes that shape protected areas, especially the legal changes that have weakened, reduced, or eliminated protected areas. We call this PADDD: Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement. PADDD has been documented around the world and has been linked to consequences for biodiversity, including forest loss, carbon emissions, and forest fragmentation.


To understand PADDD, I am conducting archival research and interviewing experts in Ecuador and Peru. I will review databases, collect documents and maps, and ask experts about the context behind these legal changes. All of this information will go into a spatial (map-based) database and will be published online after peer-review. Making the data available will enable others to conduct other important research.
After data collection, I will then use the database to assess: what have been the patterns, trends, and causes of PADDD in Ecuador and Peru? And notably – what have been the impacts? How has PADDD contributed to changes in forests – including loss and degradation?

 

This research is important because it provides a new understanding of protected areas – the flagship conservation effort worldwide. Many international conventions – including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Sustainable Development Goals – use protected area coverage as an indicator of success. It is critical to accurately track progress towards these goals to ensure that conservation progress advances. This work also questions the common assumption that protected areas are permanent. It causes conservation scientists and practitioners to rethink notions about the sustainability and effectiveness of protected areas. I hope this work can also help in the design of more durable conservation strategies in the future.


The GWIS fellowship has made this possible because it provides critical travel funds, enabling me to conduct on-the-ground archival research and interviews. It is essential to do this deep dive to gain a thorough understanding of PADDD. Not only will such travel help me to ensure that the database I create is complete, but also it will provide key context to understand the legal changes themselves.

 

What’s the coolest thing about your research and/or favorite part of your job?


The coolest and most exciting thing about my research is its direct applicability to the real world. I study protected areas – places set aside for conservation – to understand how durable and effective they are. This work is directly relevant to our understanding of how we manage lands, enact policies, and plan for the future. I hope that my research can inform and improve how conservation actions are implemented by informing the design of robust solutions.

My favorite part of my research is that I get to work with and meet amazing people. I have found that conservation scientists run on an essential fuel: passion. Passion to stop and reverse the most dire trends that our world faces – climate change, biodiversity loss, land conversion, ocean acidification, and other wicked problems. We are obsessed with getting the science right so that we can make a difference to help the environment and people. I am inspired by this work and those that I work with every day and remain optimistic that conservation science does and will make a difference.

How did you end up doing what you’re doing? What was your path to becoming a scientist?


I have always been interested in nature and inquisitive about the world around me. I believe that this type of open-mindedness paired with critical questioning is key for success in science. I also believe that a love for nature and a passion for the work is fundamental! I unofficially began my “training” as a nature lover as a Girl Scout, camping, hiking, and kayaking with best friends at Camp Gley Spey in New York. Although I grew up in an urban area, this early exposure to nature was crucial to fostering my appreciation and interest in how the natural world works.

I officially began my training in Biology as an undergraduate at Boston University, after also considering majors in music and English. My biology and science teachers in high school helped inspire me to pursue this path and I haven’t looked back since! The point at which I decided to seriously dedicate my career to conservation science was during a study-abroad trip to Ecuador. This tropical ecology program not only provided the opportunity to visit many unique ecosystems, including the Galapagos islands, but also exposed me to the challenges and importance of conservation. After my undergraduate work and a field season in Yellowstone National Park with the Student Conservation Association,

I completed a master’s in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology (CONS) at the University of Maryland. This fantastic program exposed me to the professional conservation world in Washington DC, during which I interned at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the World Wildlife Fund. Now, with my PhD training at George Mason University, I continue to work collaboratively outside of academia and partner with scientists at Conservation International; these collaborations have been key to connecting my science to the real world.


What do you like to do when you aren’t working on your science?


When I’m not working on my science, I love to hike, sing, and host gatherings with family and friends. I’ve found that recharging and taking breaks from work is key to avoiding burn out, especially while in graduate school when most of the days are unstructured. The best piece of advice I’ve gotten from a peer graduate student during my first year was: “Just go to yoga class.”

Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for girls and young women who wish to pursue a career in science?


Young ladies: science is so much fun. You get to ask and answer the most unique questions and share your results with the world. If science is something that you are passionate about and willing to work hard at – go for it.  I think one of the hardest things about being a scientist in the beginning is deciding what specialization to focus on. I thought I might study coral reefs, fish DNA, or maybe even tropical bats. As you work through your training, keep an open mind, ask questions, and try new things.

For all the ladies out there: While yes, there are undoubtedly challenges associated with being a woman in science – the leaky pipeline, disproportionate harassment and discrimination, inequitable hiring and pay, even gendered biases in professor evaluations – I am heartened by the fact that these issues are being raised, as a start, and will continue to be addressed. Initiatives to increase diversity – including but not limited to gender diversity – are an important start. I believe we also have to do more than just “lean in” to create a work culture that is friendlier to women AND families. For instance, by supporting family-friendly policies such as parental leave that includes paternal leave, I think we can create a more balanced situation for the U.S. work culture. I would also advise young women to seek mentors – men and women – that are supportive not only of your work but of who you are as a scientist, professional, AND person. 

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