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Meet WWF's Chief Scientist Dr. Rebecca Shaw

Rebecca Shaw

WWF’s Chief Scientist Dr. Rebecca Shaw is a brilliant thought leader who has been researching and leading interdisciplinary approaches to conservation and climate change for more than 30 years. Prior to her time at WWF, Dr. Shaw served in key science and leadership roles at the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy. She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and completed her post-doc at Stanford University. Here Dr. Shaw talks about what inspires her and why she’s excited to be at WWF.

Q. What sparked your love for conservation?

When I was younger, I wanted to cure cancer. At that time, I didn’t have a real sense of all the ways in which you can be impactful in life, but I knew I wanted to do something big. So I studied pre-med in college, but also took field courses in Baja and elsewhere that ignited a deep fascination with nature.

Right after college, I got a job as a research assistant in Brazil. I lived with a group of scientists on a floating raft on the Amazon River in the middle of nowhere. The water would rise, and our raft would rise with it. We lived as part of the river. Where others might be freaked out by all the bugs and the vegetation, I was so in love with everything I could see.

Within the year or so I was down there, I saw the forest around us go from being totally pristine to 70 percent deforested. The Brazilian government at that time was handing out tracts of forest, encouraging families to leave overcrowded urban favelas and settle in the Amazon. One governor was even handing out chainsaws! And around the same time, there was increasing interest among scientists and the media about the connection between climate and forests. I wanted to understand the forces that were driving this destruction.

Q. So medical school became less appealing.

I still wanted to have a big impact on the world, but it was clear to me that it was going to take a different path. I decided to attend UC Berkeley, where I did my masters in environmental policy and PhD in energy and resources. Because of my experience in the Amazon, my graduate work focused on climate – the impacts of climate on biodiversity and ecosystem services and the economic drivers of that. I was trying to understand this integrated ecological and social system; when everyone involved in that system is acting rationally and destroying the Earth, what’s the way out?

Q. Are you encouraged by the new momentum around climate change since the Paris COP?

Paris was really exciting because countries came to the table with very concrete commitments. At the same time, there are all these corporations that now see climate change as a risk to their long-term viability. They are turning to NGOs and scientists to ask for help. It’s an amazing time because new connections are emerging between business, the academic sector, NGOs and governments. We can now integrate information across physical and social systems to find better solutions, measure things better, and make smarter decisions. It means the way we think about science has to be a lot broader than it has been in the past.

Q. What excites you about working at WWF?

WWF is at the forefront of understanding how much things are changing. WWF gets that we have to act differently. We have to bring different expertise to the table to find solutions, and WWF can do that like nobody else can. It’s not just its size, it’s the way it interacts with people across the planet. The science is as important as the policy as the people. As an institution, it has amazing respect, it has amazing reach, and the integrity to take on these issues in a fundamentally new way. And it has heart like there’s no tomorrow.

Q. Do you see a lot of women at your level in the conservation sector?

You don’t see a lot of women in decision making, and particularly not in science at the highest levels. But it’s not just women, we’re lacking diversity overall. We need more racial and cultural perspectives. I also worry about not listening enough to young voices. People who haven’t been in the field for decades are more likely to take risks and think outside the box.

Q. Do you have a role model?

My grandmother. She was so amazing. In my home office, I have these suffragette flags that she carried as a young woman in New York. At age 19, she moved from a little town in Nebraska to New York to study at Columbia University. She was very grandmotherly, but she had a strength and ferocity that really made an imprint on me. I think of her advocating for women’s right to vote in the early 1900s and how she stepped outside the lines in a much more radical way than I have.

Q. Do you have a favorite spot in nature?

I love California. There’s a kind of ecosystem in California called chaparral that is shrubby and blue-gray. The most amazing thing is not just the colors but the smells. Everything is aromatic because the plants there need defenses to survive in such a harsh environment. I love hiking in the chaparral by the coast, right after a rain with the sun shining.