Alumni in ENVS

ENVS Alumna, Rae Wynn-Grant (C’06): PhD research and career in conservation science

Recently we caught up with ENVS alumna Rae Wynn-Grant (C’06). Rae’s story is a familiar one here in the department – students who arrive at Emory considering one academic path, discover ENVS and then find themselves on an academic trajectory they had not even imagined. Rae’s story is a testament to the individual attention that students find in the department and the power of just one person investing the time to talk about how the Emory undergraduate experience is a personal journey of academic discovery. Enjoy!

1. How did you come to study ENVS at Emory?
I came to Emory with aspirations of being a biology major or to possibly study journalism. But I really wasn’t sure. During my freshman year, I attended a department fair where all of the departments had representatives to recruit new students. The ENVS table was manned by a former staff member and I remember very distinctly that he saw me walking around aimlessly, called me over to the ENVS booth, and started chatting with me about my background, my interests, and values. To be honest, I had never seen an African American represent the environmental sciences, and his mere placement at the table helped me envision myself in this field of study. By the end of our conversation, he strongly suggested that I try out ENVS as a major and that I should go for the B.S. degree. For a number of reasons, I trusted that he knew what was best for me, so I started taking ENVS classes and never looked back.

2. Is there a faculty member that your worked closely with doing research or field work?
I completed most of my research and field work while studying abroad on an ENVS-approved program in southern Kenya. The program was my first introduction to wildlife conservation and fieldwork, and I was able to work closely with prominent Kenyan professors on research focused on the impacts of water diversion on landscape use of zebras. Although I didn’t do research with any of the ENVS professors, there was a faculty member, Paul Hirsch, who impacted my development by helping me gain an understanding of environmental policy. Because of his class, I’ve continued to explore the interdisciplinary nature of conservation science. I also took classes from current faculty members Dr. Gunderson, Dr. Hall, and Dr. Wegner, which were both challenging and enjoyable.

3. What has been your career/education path since leaving Emory?
Since leaving Emory, I’ve committed myself to a career in conservation science. Immediately following graduation, I took a job at the World Wildlife Fund as a research assistant working on a number of their emerging wildlife conservation projects based in South America. Working at WWF gave me a different kind of education and helped me to solidify my interest in research and applied conservation. I also became fascinated by large carnivore conservation work. All of the leading scientists at WWF had graduate degrees from some of the top conservation programs, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I went on to attend the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES), where I achieved a Master of Science with a focus on wildlife ecology. My thesis explored the spatial patterns of human-lion conflict in central Tanzania, a project that required extensive fieldwork and hands-on training in lion biology. I then entered a PhD program at Columbia University in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B). My dissertation broadly investigated the impacts of human activity on black bear ecology. This work required many field seasons trapping and tracking black bears in the mountains of western Nevada, experiences that I absolutely loved. I successfully defended my dissertation last May, and am now a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Here, I’m using data collected during my doctorate to investigate the ecological drivers and spatial patterns of human-bear conflict in western Nevada.

4. How did ENVS prepare you for this path?
My time at ENVS is what allowed me to fall in love with wildlife conservation, and large carnivore ecology in particular. The department provided a great interdisciplinary education, yet was soundly rooted in current science. Prior to being a student in ENVS, I had never been hiking or camping, or seen animals in the wild. However, my study abroad experience provided all of those opportunities, and solidified my career trajectory. I had a wonderful time at Emory, and in particular, studying in ENVS, and attribute much of my success to the foundations I received in the program.

5. What is your favorite Emory tradition and/or what do you miss most about campus?
I am admittedly not a huge football fan, but I love a good party, so I always loved that Emory held a homecoming celebration, despite not having a football team! Also, having gone to graduate schools in the northeast, I really miss the great weather and the beauty of Emory’s campus year-round.