All life on Earth relies on the complex interactions that occur within ecosystems. Thus, preserving biodiversity is essential for human wellbeing. With current extinction levels orders of magnitude higher than natural rates, this is a daunting mission, but William & Mary’s Institute for Integrative Conservation has a unique, collaborative approach to advance biodiversity conservation: the Conservation Research Program.
“The IIC’s Conservation Research Program is uniquely designed to break down the gap between research and action in the conservation field,” said Research Program Manager, Erica Garroutte.
Each year, the IIC team sends out a call to a network of approximately 90 external conservation partners, including nongovernmental organizations, tribal nations, Indigenous communities, federal and state agencies, universities, community groups and private corporations. Those partners respond with proposals for projects that would benefit from the work of IIC’s student researchers.
As Executive Director Robert Rose explained, students apply for projects based on their interests, skills and experience, then work with the external partners to gather valuable information that will assist with specific biodiversity conservation challenges. Projects have differing needs and benefit from an integrative approach that can include diverse academic disciplines such as data science, economics, fine and performing arts, natural sciences and social sciences.
Advancing research and scholarship of consequence, forming global connections and elevating civic engagement and service are key components of W&M’s goal to expand the university’s reach within the Vision 2026 strategic plan.
IIC research benefits both external partners and students. The information gleaned from student research assists partners in determining conservation strategies, while students gain experience in conservation careers and see their work applied to critical biodiversity projects.
“Students meet regularly with their conservation partners and essentially get to work as part of the organization’s team throughout the project,” said Garroutte. “This is a unique opportunity that not only helps the students explore their potential career paths but has opened up doors for many students to network and secure positions post-graduation.”
Why is conservation important?
Humans are part of the ecosystem and depend on healthy ecosystems for necessities like food, clean air and water, medicines and a stable climate. A growing body of research also indicates that time spent in nature boosts mental health and cognition.
Biodiversity is essential to maintain healthy ecosystems. Extinction occurs naturally, but even the most conservative estimates indicate that the current loss of species is at least 100 times the natural rate. Many biologists estimate the rate to be 1,000 times higher than normal. In order to conserve ecosystems for both their intrinsic and functional value, safeguarding biodiversity is vitally important.
Incorporating diverse knowledge
Members of local communities often possess intimate knowledge of the complexities of surrounding ecosystems and how those systems function. Tapping into that wealth of knowledge provides valuable insight and innovative ideas to maximize the efficiency of conservation measures. The IIC values Indigenous voices and seeks to learn from their input in order to achieve maximum benefits for both people and the environment in which they live.
Many CRP students collaborate directly with members of Indigenous communities. For example, Joseph Baca ’24 and Jack Hayes ’24 worked alongside Nepali people to promote community-led water management. The students interviewed people throughout Nepal to document and incorporate local knowledge, perspectives and solutions into watershed management and policy.
“I think this project was a great way to get out and experience the world: something completely and vastly different from westernized culture,” Baca said in a CRP video. “This experience was very impactful, very meaningful, and it’s something that I’m going to treasure for the rest of my life.”
Sapana Lohani, geospatial data scientist at the IIC, mentored Baca and Hayes on this project.
“Results from this research feed to the bigger Nepal Water Initiative (NWI), which is a multidisciplinary collaboration research effort led by scientists and scholars from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the Global Research Institute (GRI), the Institute for Integrative Conservation (IIC), and the religious studies department,” said Lohani. “The NWI envisions contributing to community-led sustainable water resource management that could potentially ensure biodiversity conservation and community wellbeing.”
Lohani adds that another set of students will visit more sites in Nepal next year to collect data for similar research.
“IIC student research is an incredible opportunity for W&M students to explore new cultures and contribute to natural resource management policy recommendations in a developing country like Nepal,” said Lohani. “It was a great experience taking my students to my home country and contributing to conservation work.”
Advancing conservation solutions in Virginia and worldwide
In some projects, students can provide valuable information about global issues without leaving Virginia. For example, Krithika Layagala ’25 developed a novel method of using multiple indices such as wildfire risk, socioeconomic status, population density, infrastructure, water security and health care access to determine which populations across the globe are most at risk from wildfires. Using geographic information systems, she created a map of wildfire vulnerability and established priority areas in which funding, support, and further research can combat wildfires. Her research expands upon the research already done by Conservation International, the external partner with whom she is working.
Layagala collaborated with Conservation International’s Camila Donatti, director of climate change adaptation and nature-based solutions at the Moore Center For Science.
“Krithika’s work is serving as the basis for an assessment we are doing at Conservation International to understand the role of nature for climate adaptation,” said Donatti in a reflection that she shared with the IIC. “The method that she has developed to understand the vulnerability of people to wildfires was really important for us to move forward with that assessment.”
Conservation issues closer to home also need to be addressed. For instance, wildlife crossings on Virginia roads are dangerous for humans and animals alike. Drivers in Loudoun County face the highest rate of those collisions in the state. To improve safety for both drivers and wildlife, Alexa Busby ’25 worked with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to identify hotspots for wildlife-vehicle collisions. For each of the 10 sites that she identified, she created an action plan that utilizes fencing to guide animals to existing underpasses.
To increase the efficiency of similar future projects, Busby also developed an app that allows volunteers to report live or deceased animals within or near roadways. Community participation provides useful data that will give a more detailed picture of wildlife activity on roads.
Jordan Green, district biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, provided the IIC with a reflection of Busby’s work on this project.
“Alexa’s multifaceted work is helping to promote a safer future for drivers and wildlife, connect wildlife habitat and empower citizen scientists to inform community decisions based on the data that they collect,” Green wrote. “Alexa’s research will help inform future updates to the Virginia Wildlife Corridor Action Plan, a multi-agency state plan to enhance and protect vital wildlife habitat corridors and reduce vehicle-wildlife conflicts across the commonwealth.”
Building integrative teams is key to conservation success
CRP projects vary widely, and the IIC’s middle initial stands for a key factor that is woven throughout the program. Integration of disciplines, departments, institutions and cultures provides innovative solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges, and CRP students are meeting those challenges head-on.
“The CRP model has allowed us to foster connections and open dialogue between students, faculty, communities, scientists and practitioners who bring a diversity of perspectives, skills, experiences, and knowledge needed to solve complex conservation challenges,” said Garroutte. “It has been incredible to watch W&M students lead and learn from these interdisciplinary discussions and apply these unique perspectives to develop new, innovative conservation solutions. It is clear that this program is not only advancing conservation outcomes but is also nurturing the next generation of compassionate, self-reflective and effective conservation leaders.”
A complete list of 2023 year-long projects is available here.
View 2023 student research presentations here.
Laura Grove, Research Writer