A Fellow’s Story: Crossing Oceans, Breaking Boundaries

by | 9.12.2013 at 5:00pm
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By Jane Carter Ingram

After working and conducting research in tropical forests and coastal areas throughout college, graduate school and in between, Manhattan did not seem like a natural place to migrate after completing my PhD. But, the allure of the Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship and all of the opportunities that might come with it, was enough of an incentive to give urban living a try. And, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Jane Carter Ingram

Jane Carter Ingram

Few post-doctoral fellowships exist that enable scholars to explore some of the world’s most vexing environmental and development challenges in a truly interdisciplinary community, with opportunities to collaborate with faculty and colleagues who are conducting cutting edge research and informing policies and practices around the world. The culture of the Earth Institute is one in which fellows are strongly encouraged to venture beyond their disciplinary boundaries to work with staff and other fellows who possess common interests but who might address a problem or question with different methods, theories and types of data.

For example, shortly after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 devastated many areas throughout the region, several fellows and I conducted surveys of the affected coastline in Sri Lanka to assess the damage and the factors that contributed to human vulnerability at impact and in the aftermath of the disaster. We were a team possessing diverse backgrounds in engineering, hazards management, ecology and geography. Through this work, we focused our combined perspectives and skills to identify how built structures and natural features were impacted by the waves, how they helped buffer the impact of the waves, and how the degree of infrastructural and ecological damage was influencing people’s ability to recover. The interdisciplinary questions we asked and the issues we explored as a group would likely not have emerged if we had been a group consisting of only engineers or only ecologists, which is a much more common way to conduct field research.  I continue to work with the fellows who where members of this team on various projects and initiatives related to this topic and also consider them among my dearest friends.

In addition, being at the Earth Institute, gave me the intellectual space and collegial support to explore a series of connected questions related to how nature contributes to human welfare in very different ways. In addition to exploring these issues as a part of a subset of questions in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, I also worked with colleagues to explore how some of our findings from the Indian Ocean disaster might apply to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, where several of us conducted similar surveys to those we undertook in Sri Lanka.

During the fellowship, I was also able to continue doing field work in Madagascar, where I had conducted my PhD field research, to build on my past work and to explore new questions related to measuring and evaluating how forests contribute to poor rural households in communities surrounding protected areas. Although I was in the field quite a bit, being based in New York gave me the opportunity to work with the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Equator Initiative and to conduct preliminary research on some of the major factors associated with effective integration of conservation and poverty reduction efforts. I continue to partner with the Equator Initiative in my current job through participation on their technical advisory committee and through various collaborative activities.

Finally, with several other fellows, I began working on broader questions requiring synthetic, desk analyses and literature reviews related to how ecology can be better integrated with poverty reduction efforts. This work led to the publication of two books in early 2012 that former Earth Institute fellows and I edited together. All of these research activities and collaborative partnerships were critical for deepening my understanding of the opportunities and limitations related to how ecological systems can contribute to poverty reduction.

Many people talk about the importance of doing interdisciplinary research, but actually doing it can be quite a challenge. One of the unique strengths of the Earth Institute is that the staff, faculty and fellows don’t just support the idea of doing interdisciplinary work, but deeply engage with how to do it through the development of methods, indicators and analytical techniques that allow an understanding of how human and natural systems interact and change, and how those dynamics can be influenced to support long-term progress toward development goals. Our group of fellows was so consumed by these measurement challenges that, with the support of the Earth Institute, we initiated a bi-weekly series where we would debate and explore the most effective ways to measure and evaluate progress toward sustainability. This work is ongoing, of course, and a focus of many researchers and institutions. Many of us continue to deeply engage with these issues today. Having the opportunity to wrestle with these issues in an informal group of international scholars, colleagues and friends from different disciplines was an invaluable opportunity and one of the benefits of being part of the Earth Institute fellows’ community.

Although it has been a few years since I was an Earth Institute Fellow, I continue to benefit from being there. For example, as the lead of the Ecosystem Services program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, I work with field staff around the world to explore ways in which we can measure and value the benefits that nature provides to people (i.e. ecosystem services) and create incentives to promote their conservation. Because the benefits that nature provides to people span areas as diverse as disease regulation, hazard protection, food production, water quality and quantity regulation, pollination, energy production, spiritual fulfillment and many others, I am constantly interacting with researchers, managers and decision makers from a range of professional backgrounds. The expansive networks within and outside of Columbia that the Earth Institute allowed me to cultivate have also left me with a vast, branching network of colleagues and friends spanning different countries, disciplines and organizations, whom I can call on to seek expertise in areas in which I may not be fluent. My fellowship was a once-in-a-lifetime, career-changing experience, for which I remain extremely grateful.

Jane Carter Ingram, MSc, PhD, leads the Ecosystem Services program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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