As an undergraduate, I began to take my interest in nature more seriously. I was a biology major, and focused my studies on ecology, particularly tropical ecology. I had the opportunity to study tropical field biology at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa, Panama, and then to study abroad in Costa Rica with the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS).
My semester with OTS was my first experience with conservation - and also the most influential. The program exposed me to not only to the biological and ecological sides of conservation, but also to the social, political, and economic sides. We visited government projects, went on tours of banana and coffee plantations, learned about Costa Rica's incredible national parks system, and saw grassroots efforts first-hand. There were both failures and successes, but the important message was that effective conservation requires more than just scientific study - it takes collaboration, cooperation, and compromise.
I believe successful conservation requires an understanding and appreciation of both the needs of ecosystems and the needs of humans. Not only must we be mindful of ecosystem processes and their constituent parts, but we must also factor in the relationship of ecosystems to humans. How do humans impact their environment and how does our environment impact us in turn? What are the costs and benefits to changing human behavior for the conservation of biodiversity?
Furthermore, I think it is important to understand and work with others, rather than fight against them. I don't believe people are either for or against the environment; the world is not so black and white. Such a perspective creates misperceptions, misunderstandings, and antagonism. Rather, I think everyone is in favor of some aspect of the environment's well-being, and it is simply a matter of priorities. Some things are more important to people than the environment, such as earning income or putting food on the table. Sometimes those priorities also include self-indulgence and the pursuit of luxury. While I don't favor excessive consumption without regard for environmental and social responsibility, I also don't think people are evil for putting other things before environmentalism. It is a matter of understanding how the environment relates to our priorities, and how environmental consciousness can fit into our lives - as individuals, as communities, and as businesses, governments, and other institutions. Moreover, I believe we can maintain a comfortable lifestyle and still dramatically reduce our impact on the environment, so long as we are educated about the problems and properly informed of available alternatives.
To that end, I believe that conservation must entail not only the pursuit of scientific knowledge, but also the dissemination of that knowledge through education, consideration of human needs and values, the presentation of viable and agreeable alternatives, and citizen participation and empowerment. Conservation is thus inherently an interdisciplinary study, and while it is difficult to be an expert in all fields, effective conservationists should attempt to at least understand all facets and how they interact.