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Q&A with Amanda Rodewald

periodiCALS, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2018

Amanda Rodewald
Amanda Rodewald. Photo by Simon Wheeler.

Amanda Rodewald is Garvin Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Biodiversity continues to be lost at alarming rates. Do you have any hope that this trend might be reversed?

I do have hope. One of the challenges we have faced is that science is not always applied in the right places at the right times to help guide conservation. We are changing that by working more closely with partners who practice on-the-ground conservation. When we co-create research and solutions, they are more effective. Scientists also are doing a much better job framing how biodiversity and a healthy environment support human health and well-being. This broad framing draws in new partners—including from the private sector—and has the potential to unlock a lot of resources and capital that can be used to achieve conservation. If you look over history, when people come together to tackle a problem, we usually get positive results. 

What keeps you motivated when there is so much negative news surrounding conservation efforts?

I have always had a deep concern for the environment. As a scientist, I am dedicated to finding ways I can contribute to keeping the world healthy. A healthy planet supports biodiversity, ecosystem services, human health and well-being—pretty much everything. My motivation comes from a belief that we can make changes and that better science, innovation and engagement will result in positive outcomes.  

On a personal side, I find it incredibly thrilling. Conservation as a field is becoming more and more interdisciplinary. It’s not just ecologists working to find solutions: We are collaborating with colleagues in business, economics and other social sciences to find solutions. Cornell makes it easy to connect with colleagues across campus and disciplines, and CALS does a great job of bringing faculty together in a useful and informative way. It’s a really intellectually stimulating environment and set of questions to grapple with. I’m always learning; I’m always curious. 

What led you to become a scientist?

Growing up in Schenectady, I spent most of my time outside in the alleys, up in the trees and, strangely, even riding imaginary horses around the neighborhood. My interest in conservation grew out of a love of being outdoors. In college I had many interests and thought I might be a writer or environmental lawyer—I was all over the place. Then I met a friend in a backpacking club who was majoring in forestry, and I was like, ‘Wow, you can do that?’ 

Now that I am a scientist, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. There are so many great experiences I’ve had working in the field. I love being surrounded by trees with light coming through the forest canopy and seeing mountains in the distance. All those things are really meaningful to me. The coffee-growing regions in the northern Andes have always wowed me. There’s something about the intersection of the people and the environment that makes it incredibly moving. 

What major challenges do you see in terms of conservation decline?

There are many drivers of loss of biodiversity, but habitat loss and environmental degradation remain the top threats. Climate change is certainly another huge concern, but we can’t lose sight that we need to stop the habitat destruction that is happening right now. We need to find better ways to incentivize pro-environment choices across all sectors of society. 

Is there anything people do that really drives you crazy from a conservation perspective? 

When people fail to see the links between the issues that they care about and the environment, that gets to me. Whether it’s national security or immigration or strong economy or public health, all of these things are grounded in a healthy environment. An unhealthy environment exacerbates challenges we face in those other areas. Conservation and environmental protection aren’t going to be at the top of everyone’s list, and I get that; that’s OK. We can care about different issues, but we still need to see the connections among them.

Do you have advice for people who want to make changes to their own lifestyle to help support conservation but don’t know where to start? 

Don’t let the “best” be the enemy of the “good.” Any small change is something. Whether it’s keeping your cat inside, or buying shade-grown coffee when you can, just making small, positive changes is important. Even voting for politicians who support environmental protection, or supporting conservation organizations, all of those are fairly simple ways to contribute.