For three weeks, I had walked under the wings of metallic blue butterflies. I knew which flower to stand under to experience immersion in the buzz and emerald glitter of hummingbirds; where to go to find the same ethereal birds, slumbering with beaks pointed to the heavens, sentinels with their bayonets. We threw bananas to sociable toucanets at dinner. At daybreak, the monkey colony living beside my shack whooped and chattered me to wakefulness. In the evenings, my howler neighbors expressed courteous interest in my watercoloring, observing from perches on high; however, their courtesy did not extend far enough for them to relocate before abruptly relieving themselves.


The return journey from Bilsa Biological Field Station to Quito was painful. Having worked  so long under misty masses of verdant life, festooned with delicate fungi and orchids, I felt that our van  jumped onto a modern road with not a bang but a whimper. Family homes; fruit trees, pigs,  and chickens suckling at the rich earth of the cloud forest; disappeared.

Perfect rows of oil palm replaced color and variety and depth and vital value. The transition was not from poverty to wealth, from the underdeveloped to the developed. Behind me lay a rich ecosystem, where many families profited from their land in such a way that their grandchildren might do the same. Ahead of me lay a biologically-sterile and unsustainable monoculture, owned by the wealthy few, worked by the exploited many.

Life was not perfect for families in the jungle. They needed better access to hospitals and schools. However, looking to the future of our planet, we are too well-informed to continue clear cutting. We know better than to ignore “externalities”. We understand that our planet annually provides $33 trillion of ecosystem services[1]; that we destroy our home’s capacity to provide these when we define ‘development’ by monetized goods alone. 

As an investigative scientist and conservation advocate, I hope to assess complex issues affecting wildlife health and devise ingenious solutions simultaneously benefiting humans. I am applying to Cornell’s dual DVM-PhD program. My proposed research is the study of white nose  syndrome, a fungus brought to North America by human activity that may kill 90% of this continent’s bats. How does one restrict human access to colonies, reducing cave contamination or stress for sick bats, without negatively impacting spelunkers’ experiences? Human travel and exchange will never stop, but can we design measures to prevent our unleashing pernicious invasives? If I hope to help alleviate ecological epidemics I must possess insightful management skills and understand the global ecological system.

I propose a quest to explore the best and brightest of global biodiversity projects. When we think about the long-term and the interspecies common good, do we find that human and non-human animal well-being coincide? When interest groups negotiate or compromise, how do they arrive at a conclusion satisfactory to all? To what length can creative solutions go in easing the need for compromise?

I wish to circumnavigate the globe along its girth, where the biodiversity hotspots lie[2]. There are 34 of these biotic cradles in the world, where extreme levels of biodiversity and endemism are suffering intensive loss due to human activities. Ecological challenges are necessarily diverse and specific. Each hotspot represents a unique cast of biological actors and a distinct human cultural context. Diverse ecological challenges necessitate diverse tailored solutions.

Since I have been clear about my vocation since the age of fourteen, I have gone out of my way to seek work caring for wildlife and studying ecology. However, as a serious student, my experiences has been restricted to my academic breaks—they have been short and disconnected. The opportunity for a year’s practical experience, appreciating first-hand the incredible diversity both of nature and of local ecological issues, would give me an unrivaled background as a biodiversity conservationist of truly global understanding. I would be able to synthesize in-depth understanding of many successful conservation sites; perhaps extracting universal commonalities, and perhaps just gaining a greater appreciation for the incredibly diversity of challenges and solutions. Such an inspiring experience would also go far in fueling me through eight further years of hard study!

To discover how locals perceive conservation projects, I would ask them

  • What life was like for their family before the project came to their community?
  • How life has changed since then?
  • Do they feel like their voice is represented in the project?
  • Do they think of themselves as an environmental steward?
  • What being a steward means to them?

This opportunity to witness the implementation of conservation projects, and to understand civilians’ opinions about them, is something that a DVM-PhD program will not furnish.

I selected projects to visit with the hope of learning about all levels of conservation: conserving species or habitats, environmental awareness, ecotourism, administration, conferences. All projects also imply the mobilization of local people; through employment, participation in programming, or opportunities to be supported in conversion to environmentally-sustainable livelihoods.


[1] $16-54 trillion/yr of planetary ecosystem services, avgd. as $33 trillion/yr. Man’s global gross national product [GNP] is $18trillion/yr. From Nature, The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387:253-260.

[2] “Biodiversity hotspot” was first defined by Norman Myers (The Environmentalist, 1988). The term requires that >0.5% or 1,500 species of a region’s vascular plants be endemic, and that >70% of its primary vegetation be lost. These sites support ~60% of the world’s known plant, bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species; with a high proportion of endemics.

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© Copyright Emma Steigerwald | Vanderbilt Traveling Fellow