‘Complex problems are worth solving,' Alumna Rachel Martin uses her multidisciplinary degree to challenge modern-day conservation
Every day, she challenges and probes, nudges and tugs. She’s exploring innovative solutions to help the scientific field of conservation get back to its mission as a crisis discipline focused on solutions to prevent the extinction of species.
Rachel Martin has some questions for the conservation world.
If that sounds lofty – it is. Her work is critical and she’s helping to reshape the way we think about conservation. Martin, a 2020 Ohio University Honors Tutorial College (HTC) alumna, works as a Research Associate at Conservation X Labs in Washington, D.C., to quantify solutions to the extinction crisis based on impact, scalability, and cost-effectiveness – all with a planetary health lens. Before that, she was a little girl from a small West Virginia town called Buffalo and she grew up watching natural resource destruction and environmental injustice in her own backyard and wondering how she might help.
Shaping an environmental studies degree at OHIO
Martin’s college experience was extreme – and extremely rich with experiences. Her in-person interview with HTC got canceled for snow for the first time in the college’s history, and then she graduated during a global pandemic. But she’ll tell you she loved everything about her OHIO experience – from the bricks to the greens. She’ll also tell you, looking back, that choosing the Honors Tutorial path, with a focus on environmental studies and biological sciences through the College of Arts and Sciences, was the best academic decision she could have made.
“The ability to tailor courses to my interest and create an interdisciplinary degree has created the type of researcher I am today,” Martin said. “Working one-on-one with professors allowed me to answer questions general coursework couldn’t, be wrong – and learn from that, and most importantly the tutorial system left me feeling independent and confident in my ability to solve problems or find the answers. It also, ironically, made me ask for help when I needed it and not be afraid to simply say ‘I don’t know, can you help me to understand?’”
While at OHIO, Martin studied abroad in the Balkans learning about environmental peacebuilding. She led Bobcats for Bobcats – a joint University, community effort to oppose the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ proposal to allow bobcat trapping and killing. She won the DAAD RISE scholarship as a sophomore to study harbor seal cognition in Germany, the NOAA Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship to work at NOAA’s AOML in Miami on a marine indicator efficacy study, and she was awarded the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship for commitment to environmental issues. She was a Voinovich Research Scholar, crediting her time at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service for helping her gain skills in grant writing and collaborative research.
“The Voinovich School really helped make the college experience whole for me and added to the HTC experience. I was able to take upper-level environmental courses across timely topics and work directly with professors. One theme across all of my mentors that I value greatly is their ability to see more in me than I can often see in myself. A lot of my success has come from them knowing I can do something, and then giving me the right amount of guidance and self-learning to do so,” Martin said.
Invested in Rachel’s success
One of Martin’s mentors is Geoff Dabelko, professor and associate dean at the Voinovich School. Dabelko made navigating the Voinovich School and HTC relationship much easier, Martin said, and he encouraged her to take on ventures like the Scripps Innovation Challenge and upper-level coursework that led to a deeper understanding of the spaces she currently works in.
Dabelko mentored Martin’s Scripps Innovation Challenge team, helping them be recognized by the Natural Resources Defense Council for having the best solution to its “challenge” to find an innovative and effective way for NRDC to increase donations. The team won an all-expenses-paid trip to NRDC’s New York offices and the opportunity to pitch the idea to the organization’s top officials. Dabelko also led Martin’s peacebuilding studies in the Balkans and even shared the fellowship that would introduce Martin to Conservation X Labs and launch her career.
“Rachel took full advantage of the diverse interdisciplinary opportunities OU offers, preparing her well for the technological innovation approach to tackling biodiversity loss at Conservation X Labs,” Dabelko said. “She mixed entrepreneur’s pitch competitions with field based biological research and community-focused engagement. She is serving as an excellent ambassador for OU, excelling at one of the most dynamic conservation organizations.”
Keep asking questions
“Rachel joined Conservation X Labs to help lead Drawdown for Extinction – a complex program to rank, evaluate, and compare solutions to biodiversity loss necessary to guide future conservation practitioners, organizations, investors, and society toward measurable conservation success. It is a project that we see as critical to the whole of the organization, if not to conservation itself,” said Alex Dehgan, CEO and co-founder of Conservation X Labs.
“All of this time, we may have been asking the wrong question,” Dehgan continued. “Rather than which animals or ecosystems we need to monitor and protect, we should ask which solutions would have the greatest impact on extinction and redirect more of our effort to investing in solutions that have the ability to eliminate or reduce a pressure on extinction.”
Dehgan doesn’t discount the work on monitoring and documenting biodiversity – saying it is intensely valuable as powerful records of the biodiversity we are losing and may hold secrets we need to discover – but knows that those efforts can’t work alone. He believes that generating new solutions requires many more disciplines in conservation and new ways of thinking. It requires people like Rachel Martin.
“Rachel’s daunting task has been to transform the field to its original purpose - to help us understand what solutions would have the greatest impact on extinction, and create a way that allows us to rank them, much as Project Drawdown did for climate change. We have been extraordinarily lucky to have had Rachel in this leadership role. She is brilliant, diligent, and hardworking. The multidisciplinary character of her training as a conservation professional has allowed her to succeed in this unique role,” Dehgan said.
Martin will keep asking the hard questions and wondering how she can help solve complex environmental issues.
“This work requires us to envision solutions outside of our normal ‘conservation scope’ and look to transformative shifts to tackle multiple drivers and preserve multiple species to match the scale of the problem,” she said. “Conservation cannot exist in a vacuum – its impacts don’t, and its solutions shouldn’t. Complex problems are worth solving and often require transformative and disruptive approaches. It takes a community of problem-solvers.”
The Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University is celebrating its 50th anniversary. If you are an alumnus of HTC, please share your stories with us and help us commemorate decades of academic achievement and creative thinking. Reach out to Tosha Jupiter at firstname.lastname@example.org.