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Wilburforce Ushers New Generation of Engaged Conservation Scientists

March 17, 2015

Andrea Sargis, University of California, Davis

Matt Williamson, a PhD student in Ecology and JMIE affiliate has just been awarded the newly established Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science. This inaugural fellowship, focused on developing the communication skills needed to conduct engaged conservation science, was recently awarded to 20 of the top conservation scientists in western North Americaincluding Williamsonwho is one of only two PhD students among the first cohort. Other winners include professional researchers at NGO’s and other agencies, postdocs, and professors—all focused on engaged conservation science and planning.  As scientists continue working toward solutions to conservation issues nationally and globally, the Wilburforce Fellowship is focused on facilitating the growth of leadership and communication skills in the scientists it selects—in order to promote relevant conservation research and policy action.

The research Williamson is pursuing seeks to understand how human behaviors affect connectivity, or the probability of movement between habitat patches, of wildlife species.

“When we think about humans within [the wildlife] system, we think about them in terms of roads and cities,” says Williamson, “while those are certainly important factors to consider, the research I’m working on is asking whether there are more subtle effects of humans, particularly through behaviors like trapping, hunting, or hazing, that might have an effect as well.”

Wilburforce Ushers New Generation of Engaged Conservation ScientistsUsing the American marten (Martes Americana) as a model system, Williamson plans to evaluate the extent to which trapping pressure from people affects the space-use and connectivity of local marten populations in Idaho and Montana. Martens have been subject to trapping for decades in Idaho and Montana, however many western states are changing demographically, which may significantly alter both patterns of trapping and the policies that govern trapping. Williamson’s efforts to model connectivity as a climate adaptation strategy, and maintain climate pathways for wildlife, will help guide future policy goals in the western US. This is where the leadership and communication skills garnered from the Wilburforce Fellowship will come in handy.  Fellows will receive intensive engagement training led by COMPASS that will encourage leadership, communication, and develop a network of researchers dedicated to decision-relevant research (Marten photo copyright: Jonny Armstrong).

But what made Williamson an eligible applicant so seemingly early in his career? Williamson says this is probably due to his previous history of working in the field of conservation. Prior to starting his PhD in the Ecology Graduate Program at UC Davis, Williamson was a Program Director for four years at the Grand Canyon Trust. There he gained real-world experience developing and overseeing large, collaborative conservation research projects. “I got to work with a few of their program officers while I was at the Trust, so I knew them and they knew me. I think being a known quantity helped out in receiving the award,” says Williamson.

Working at the Grand Canyon Trust is what inspired Williamson to go back to school to pursue his PhD, since he realized he wanted to be on the ground conducting the research himself. Now, he will not only be able to conduct his own research, but also have the training and skills to express his findings beyond the scientific community. “Learning how to communicate effectively and with a particular outcome in mind is a tough skill and is not one that is generally taught especially when you are gearing up to be a researcher,” says Williamson, “it’s nice to have this opportunity and to get to work with people who are super creative in their approach.”

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