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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are on the rise- increasing from 21% in 2011 to 24% in 2021. And while men outnumber women, the number of women in the STEM workforce grew at 31% in that time period, a faster rate than men.
Before International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th, we asked some of our female scientists why they decided to pursue a career in conservation science specifically, and they all shared that access to nature in some way inspired their career choice.
Learn more about some of our WWF scientists, their work, and what keeps them motivated:
“Growing up in Hawaii, I was embedded in nature all of the time,” said Gabby about her childhood that inspired her to pursue a career in conservation science. “We spent a lot of time outdoors – hiking, snorkeling, and obviously lots of time at the beach.”
After finishing her PhD in coastal and marine systems science, Gabby started her career at WWF. “I landed a dream job with WWF, and haven’t left!” she said.
The key to conservation, Gabby says, is being able to do a lot of different things well. “From communicating to different audiences and generating actionable science that can inform decisions to working across different disciplines and with many partners, you have to be able to do it all.”
When bad news about the future of our planet seems to be everywhere you look, Gabby prefers to focus on tangible solutions and things that we can control. “I’m also surrounded by a lot of smart, passionate colleagues, so that makes putting in the work every day a lot easier!”
“It’s exciting to see how science gets taken up directly into policy,” said Becky about her latest conservation project at World Wildlife Fund. “We’re working with infrastructure planners in Indonesia and the Philippines to identify where to invest in nature-based solutions for climate resilience.” The most important part of this work, Becky says, is “we're showing government staff how their infrastructure not only impacts nature but really relies on it – how nature can help prevent erosion on to roads or reduce flooding or protect shoreline roads from coastal storms.”
Becky devotes her work to finding solutions to climate change and understanding the role that nature can play in delivering those solutions. She credits her childhood spent in nature as inspiring her to take up a career in conservation. “I grew up camping and hiking a lot with family, escaping to the woods in my backyard with friends, and admiring my dad who spent most of his career working on preserving the last vestiges of prairie in Minnesota,” Becky said. “I guess it would have been more surprising if I didn't wind up in conservation than if I did!”
When she hits a roadblock in her work, Becky remembers that prioritizing people and relationships is key. “I keep rediscovering this old truism: people don't care what you know until they know that you care. Whether it's my collaborations with other scientists or relationships with decision-makers, stakeholders, or funders, it's really hard to get anything done until you have a basis of trust and understanding,” she said. “And you build that through listening and empathy so these are skills I work hard on, and the work is never done.”
What keeps Becky motivated to continue finding solutions to climate and biodiversity loss? “It’s my kids,” she said. “They're inheriting a world that is so much more complicated and uncertain and downright scary than I did, and are facing it with a healthy sense of humor and a steely resolve, not accepting that anything is ‘just the way it is’. I believe in humanity because they are its future.”
“It was a transformative experience,” said Rachel about the trip to Ecuador that launched her career in conservation. “I learned first-hand about biodiversity, human development, and conservation in the Galapagos, the Amazon, and everything in between.”
Now, at WWF, Rachel gets to work on the most complex challenges of our time: biodiversity loss, climate change, and inequality. “By developing and translating the science, knowledge, and motivations needed for powerful actors to make better decisions, I’m helping deliver a nature-positive future,” she said.
For Rachel, conservation work can be both daunting and inspiring. “We are in an age of accelerating challenges to all life on our planet, which are especially hitting marginalized communities that depend on nature the most,” she said. At the same time, Rachel believes that we all have an incredible opportunity to make a difference. “Our generation—those of us here today on this planet— are the ones who can do something about these challenges and leave the world better than we found it. We have the solutions in hand like technical knowledge, examples of successful cultural practices from Indigenous peoples and local communities, and the emotional connection–the love of nature–to motivate ourselves and others!”
“I was at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica when a colorful Toucan landed on the branch I too was perched upon. I was so startled I almost fell off!” said Mabel about the turning point that led her to a career in conservation science. “Resting upon a beautiful tree 35 meters off the ground with a view across a luscious tropical forest, I was struck by an epiphany,” she said. “I had met my fears head on–the worst of which were about snakes and heights–to study what I love.”
Today, Mabel works on conservation projects around the world. “I’ve used my research skills to provide support for projects ranging from deer management in Upstate New York to butterflies in the Amazon rainforest,” she said. But it’s those early moments in her career that shaped her work the most. “I realized that if I wanted to make an impact in conservation my research had to be relevant to the people on the ground who are making critical decisions related to natural resource management and conservation.”
Among her many accomplishments, Mabel’s proudest moment has been receiving her PhD in Natural Resources Conservation and Research. “In 2022, I was one of the 4% of Hispanic female doctoral recipients in the United States,” she said. “As a first generation student getting my PhD was a triumph not only for me, but for my family as well.”
Mabel’s family first arrived in the U.S. when she was 10 years old. “I did not know any English. On my first test at school, I got a 28%! Up until that point, I had always been an A + student, so I was devastated,” she said. But, with her family’s support, she was back on track in no time. “That night my mom brought out our bulky English to Spanish dictionary and my history book and told me to highlight all the words that I could not understand so we could translate them. We went through many highlighters,” said Mabel. “Four months later, I got my first “A” in the U.S.”
The biggest lesson that Mabel has learned throughout her journey is that we are all interconnected. “I’m not alone. Individually our actions may be small, but together we can change the world.”
“The turning point for me was feeling grief which made me realize what I truly value,” said Dina about the moment she decided to pursue a career in conservation science. “I felt a sense of loss watching trees disappear near my apartment complex, wetlands getting reclaimed, my city flooding with heavy rains year after year, rivers dumped with garbage. I knew I had to do something about it.”
Today, Dina works as a scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. “I use the science that I love and the tools that science can develop to conserve the ecosystems that I value,” said Dina. She’s currently working on a project that uses AI to understand the impact of climate change on mangroves, which provide a wealth of benefits for both people and nature. “It’s essential that we ensure science is translated into tangible and impactful outcomes,” Dina said.
But there are always challenges and trade-offs in conservation work. “When you’re trying to solve the most complex and pressing threats to people and the planet, it’s never an easy win-win solution,” said Dina. Despite the daunting nature of her job, Dina stays positive by remembering what motivates her. “It’s the little things,” she said. “I take inspiration from new growth in my garden, and find joy watching the bright bubbly cardinal that visits me every morning.”