Tackling Global Environmental Issues

By University Advancement Staff

In November 2019, a William & Mary alumna made a $19.3-million gift to establish the landmark Institute for Integrative Conservation (IIC). The institute focuses on two overarching goals: conducting research that leads to improved global conservation outcomes and training the next generation of diverse conservation leaders.

The IIC, located at 221 N. Boundary St., is the first university program located directly under the Office of Provost instead of within a school or unit. Its vision is to be the nation’s premier cross-disciplinary institute in the critical field of conservation.

To that end, the IIC team, led by Executive Director Robert Rose and Faculty Director John Swaddle, is building a critical network of conservation partners. Throughout the year, they have been meeting with W&M alumni, other universities, federal and state agencies and conservation organizations including National Geographic, Smithsonian Institution, World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

“Conservation requires collaborative partnerships that transcend traditional boundaries and redefine the status quo. Time is of the essence and I believe that the institute is just what we need to bring significant change to our world,” says the alumna whose generous For the Bold gift made the IIC possible.

The institute is already working with conservation organizations including the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Conservation International on a set of environmental challenges that will be tackled by student-faculty teams over the next year.

“One challenge focuses on the identification of priority restoration areas in the Mesoamerican forest complex,” Rose explains. “Working with WCS, students integrated relevant data and expert opinions into a model of priority restoration areas that will drive conservation actions in this region.”

Photo by Tim Tiedmann

“We came to William & Mary with a real conservation problem,” says Jeremy Radachowsky from WCS in reference to this collaborative project. “The tools that Kat Baganski ’21 (the student lead) brought to this project, in joint conservation thinking and mapping, are really useful and Kat’s results will be implemented as part of our conservation work.”

Among the issues the IIC tackles are environmental justice and empowerment of Indigenous people, development of new conservation technologies and providing sustainable livelihoods for people who live in high biodiversity areas. To identify conservation strategies and ensure maximum impact, the IIC is establishing a network of conservation professionals from a broad range of sectors to drive real-world conservation agendas, generating actionable policy-relevant data.

“We are taking a more integrative approach to conservation,” says Swaddle. “Along with the sciences, we are building in business processes, strategic leadership and the voices and knowledge of Indigenous peoples, as many conservation challenges stem from economic development opportunities in developing nations.”

This summer, in partnership with the Roy R. Charles Center at W&M and four conservation-oriented nongovernmental organizations, the IIC launched its IIC Research Lab for virtual conservation research internships. The students’ projects, described on the IIC website, include collaborations with four external conservation partners, among them the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One of the projects will help launch the IIC podcast “Conservation Stories,” with an initial focus on Indigenous peoples’ voices. They hope to increase the size of their summer research cohort each year.

“We are expanding the skillset and pipeline of future conservation practitioners — leaders who can help prevent the degradation of our environment. Human society is utterly dependent on the vitality of the living world and we are at a tipping point where we must act to preserve biodiversity and ourselves,” says Swaddle.

John Swaddle. Photo by Stephen Salpukas

The IIC also created a series of community events, starting with a two-part “Trailblazing Women in Conservation” presentation and discussion in fall 2020. In spring 2021, they hope to hold a Hack for Earth student competition, a conservation lecture series, open houses to build student interest and involvement, and a grand opening event during Earth Week.

Swaddle, Rose and their team expect the IIC to have its own undergraduate curriculum, Integrative Conservation, in three years. Swaddle is already talking about adding a graduate certificate. They are also pursuing an emerging opportunity to create virtual and in-person professional development and leadership growth opportunities for conservation practitioners around the globe.

“William & Mary is uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of global conservation efforts because of its strength and expertise in the humanities, public policy, sciences and data analytics. The university’s diverse student body combined with its size, focus on entrepreneurial thinking and proximity to the nation’s capital, where many of the top conservation organizations are located, are all assets that will be crucial to advancing the institute’s mission,” says the alumna about her groundbreaking gift. “This is an investment in our future, in our environment and in the people at William & Mary and beyond who will undoubtedly help change the course of history.”