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Embarking on a Career in Conservation

A Princeton-in-Asia Fellow connects with nature with WWF teams in Laos

Fishing in Laos

I didn’t expect to embark on a career in conservation. The idea once made me picture wading in marshes clad with binoculars and a birding vest. Now, the past five months working for WWF in Laos has changed all that. My work has taken me to Vientiane, a rural city bordered on the west by the Mekong river.

Vientiane is a city of incredible contrasts as the old world meets the new. Here coconut and banana trees spring up among apartments and alleyways. There is rampant construction, with Vietnamese migrants hammering away at all hours. Young Lao monks pass by in bright orange, wholly absorbed in their smartphones. French bakeries crowd the city center, filled with tourists. Beyond downtown, grasslands start to open up. Further outside the city limits are villages—some of which have changed little in hundreds of years.

“I am challenged here, not just because of the magnitude of the projects, but also because my tasks each day are inextricably linked to a culture I am only beginning to understand.”

Katie White
Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at WWF

Working on environmental issues in a landscape such as this—one that is rapidly sensing the forces of capitalism, development and the West—is a delicate balance between preserving what’s left of an old, largely subsistence way of life and making way for hydropower dams, mining projects and railroads.

It's a fascinating place to work. The office at WWF-Laos is filled with geologists, environmental scientists and economists, all of whom spend each day crafting solutions, grounded in the best available science, to foster sustainable development here.

Facing the challenges

I am challenged here, not just because of the magnitude of the projects, but also because my tasks each day are inextricably linked to a culture I am only beginning to understand. I admire my female Lao coworkers, as gender roles are still quite traditional in this country; and few women are allowed time at work over staying at home. I look up to my falang (foreign) bosses as many of them have chosen the expat life over the comforts of home.

I’ve learned that environmental concerns are key components of private and public sector decisions. WWF’s work lies at the intersection of economic, social and environmental needs—encouraging development while ensuring the protection of natural resources.

The importance of conservation

Conservation work is vital, particularly in emerging economies, as failure to account for a country’s natural capital during initial investment booms can lead to decreased food and water security and energy independence.

For me, conservation is a nod of respect to those who have not been part of development decisions but whose lives will be utterly changed because of them. It’s incredibly meaningful for me to know that I’m part of an effort to give Laotians the option to continue farming in the future, if they so choose.

Validating human connection with the natural world, and securing this relationship for future generations, is what gets me up in the morning—and brings out my best work each day.

Learn more about the Greater Mekong.

Katie is currently a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at WWF (Greater Mekong Program). Based in Vientiane, Laos, she travels around the region, supporting the sustainable hydropower and species and protected areas teams. Recently Katie joined WWF-GM's green economy program, working to create financial incentives for environmentally friendly investments and policies. Katie graduated in 2011 from Williams College with a B.A. in Comparative Literature. This story appeared in The Huffington Post on March 13.