Q&A with Center for Integrative Conservation Research Director, Nate Nibbelink

BY: Christina Cannon

Nate Nibbelink has spent the last six months serving as the director for the Center of Integrative Conservation Research. Through this position Nibbelink aims to bring hard sciences and social sciences together to make conservation initiatives more lasting. A large part if the CICR is the Integrative Conservation Ph.D. program (ICON). Nibbelink feels that ICON is a truly unique program that offers students an environment that is not easily acquired at other institutions.


Q: Can you explain the CICR in your own words?

A: It really came to being through the work of Pete Brosius, who was the former director. Pete got an award from the MacArthur foundation…to look at the topic of advancing conservation. The whole project focused on developing a new framework to think about solving conservation problems and hopefully bringing multiple disciplines, practitioners, academics and locals together to do a better job. The CICR was formed around that initial award. Historically, there had been talk about developing a conservation Ph.D. program…and after about three years we had a new Ph.D. program. It’s offered through four different schools: ecology, Warnell, geography and anthropology. Through those separate units, the CICR is sort of the intellectual home for that degree program.

Q: Was there a catalyst (that you know of) for Pete Brosius that set the CICR on the ground?

A: I’m not entirely sure. He has told stories of key events in his thinking, but I’m not sure I could point to one that would have said, “hey, we need a center”. I think it was a growing sense of the need to bridge social and natural sciences on this campus. I think once he felt like he had a grasp on what kind of faculty collaborators were available on different parts of campus, he just grew them all together.

Q: Do you think the partnership that you have with conservation and social sciences is rare?

A: I think particularly now there is an increased awareness of the need to have a really good line of social and biophysical sciences to address conservation and sustainability issues. I think what is a little bit more rare are graduate programs that give students the kind of exposure to those different prospectives and the chance to practice…a science that intentionally brings in methodologies from both social and natural perspectives. It’s not uncommon that it exists out there, but I think the number of opportunities for students is fairly limited. I think it is relatively rare that programmatically, we can give a student that kind of experience. Both the CICR and the ICON program is a necessary and useful way to interact when you have traditional departmental structures.

Q: How has your own life changed since you accepted the director position last summer?

A: I was trained in a small liberal arts institution and after that really became focused in aquatic ecology in graduate school. I became so focused that I lost that rich liberal arts environment…so I think when I first started coming to these meetings…it was really enriching to challenge my mind again to think about these problems from different disciplinary and philosophical perspectives. Because I think that kind of flexibility and thinking brings so much value to problem solving, I was just compelled to maintain my involvement. I was just compelled to serve. After investigating that possibility with several deans and finding them to be flexible enough to for me to get a 25 percent time allocation to devote to it, I decided to go ahead and do it. It’s both stressful and rewarding at the same time, but I have felt a lot of support. It’s rewarding to be in this kind of position and not feel like you’re constantly coming up against barriers. I was worried about that, and it is in fact been quite the opposite.

Q: If you spend 25 percent of your time as the CICR director, what do you spend your other time doing?

A: My appointment is 50 percent research within forestry and natural research, and as per my agreement with my dean right now, it is 25 percent teaching and 25 percent administration. Of course, as most of us in academia would say, each of those is an under estimate of what we spend.

Q: Can you disclose what kind of research you are currently working on?

A: In general, my research focuses on climate and land use change and how it influences species distributions and species habitat suitability. We look at a lot of Geographic Information Systems where we use spatial tools to evaluate what kinds of changes are occurring on the landscape as a result of some of those disturbances and how that influences animal movement, survivorship and persistence.

Q: Going back to the CICR, I know one of your stated goals was to be able to offer more seed grants. Do you have an estimated timeline for that?

A: Right now we have a $2,000 award available…out for faculty, students, or faculty-student collaborations. It’s a seed grant oriented at helping people who want to collaborate across disciplines around a conservation and sustainability problem, but are at the very early stages and need to either bring a collaborator in from another institution, or travel somewhere themselves, or buy a really basic piece of equipment, or hold an all day workshop where people can brainstorm. You can’t do a lot with $2,000, but it’s a place to start. It can facilitate some travel, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get enough of a momentum going so that there is a greater possibility that someone will be competitive for a larger external grant.

Q: If you had to pick the single most important value of the CICR, what would it be?

A: I think because of the mission of UGA, the single initiative that has the most traction is our support of education initiatives. The biggest example is ICON, the formations and I think the evolving success of the Ph.D. program. We’re also partnering with the Office of Sustainability, and at least seven colleges, to help manage an undergraduate and a graduate certificate in sustainability.

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