Root to lead Society for Conservation Biology North America

By Bonnie Blankinship

Dr. Karen Root, an associate professor of conservation biology, will have the opportunity over the next six years to greatly expand her contribution to conservation and to the community of professionals who share her values. Root was recently elected to the leadership of the Society for Conservation Biology North America. She will serve as president-elect for two years, then president for two years and finally past-present for another two years.  

Her deeply felt commitment to both the cause and her peers led her to take on the role with the society.

"This is an organization I believe in," she said. "They're highly motivated, very passionate people giving so much of themselves and doing the thing they care most about, all on a volunteer basis. It's my professional home where I feel most comfortable."

With members from academia, the private sector and governmental agencies, the society is a strong and united voice for the role of science in policy and management decision making. As its vision statement says, "The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) envisions a world where people understand, value, and conserve the diversity of life on Earth. We envision SCB, a global community of conservation professionals, as a leading scientific voice for the study and conservation of Earth's biological diversity."

Root's research over the last 24 years has focused on the conservation of native biodiversity, including ecological surveys, habitat and population modeling, and conservation planning and management.

Conservation is an extremely complex topic, Root said, and one that must consider multiple factors beyond the strictly biological, including political and cultural differences, competing interests, different landscapes and a variety of scientific disciplines. There are many hard choices that have to be made, and many viewpoints are needed. Part of the society's mission is to identify and support the scientific research needed to understand and conserve biological diversity.

"We reached an environmental peak in the 1970s and '80s, when our air and water improved a lot. But now we're shifting back in the other direction, especially after the recession, and have to avoid becoming complacent."

Conservation biology by its nature tends to be collaborative, she said. The society "gives us the opportunity to coalesce and speak authoritatively in a strong, unified voice that will have a greater impact than we could individually."

Whatever the ultimate decision in any case, "We feel strongly that all the evidence needs to be considered," Root said.

She is already setting goals for what she hopes to accomplish in her six years in leadership. "I feel there's a need for professional development opportunities across our careers," she said. "There's a lot of support at the front end but not a lot for those in the middle and later years, or for big career shifts. I would like to see us help provide an entryway into the field to enable more people to take part."

Root made a shift from working in the private sector to working in academia when she came to BGSU.

This professional development could include not only the usual workshops and journal articles but also other ways of sharing knowledge, she said, such as virtual web classes accessible from anywhere.

She is also committed to diversity and equity. Although many conservation biologists are women, some related fields such as wildlife biology are still predominantly male and white. In addition, while volunteer experience counts heavily toward admission to academic programs and other opportunities, this can shut out students whose financial situation does not allow them the luxury of participating instead of working, she said.

Root is eager to explore funding for fellowships and grants from a variety of sources so that the society can support growth and greater inclusion. "We want to not only give people hope and encourage them to care about conservation but also give them the tools so that they can make a difference," she said.

She is also keenly interested in promoting citizen science, giving ordinary people avenues to contribute. "We need to be open-armed; it's like recruiting the army to save the planet," she said. "We need to embrace inclusivity and a diversity of views."

Root has twice served on the SCB Board of Directors. In 2000, the global organization decided to divide itself into seven regional affiliates to better address unique local and regional issues and cultures, while remaining under the larger umbrella of the international society. Root served on the first North American board, finishing her first term in 2004 after helping develop the initial bylaws and policies of the section. Ten years later, she was interested in the progress that had been made and ran for her second term on the board, as it became an independent affiliate this year. That term expired this year when she became president-elect.

She wanted to run for SCBNA president because "I wanted to give back, and I had some ideas that were well received," she said. The board developed a focus for its strategic plan and is working on implementation of the goals. It is exploring funding possibilities, from grants to private entities, in addition to planning the biennial meetings.

"This year the North American section become independent and we can direct our own budget and be the voice for our regions, providing a lot of new opportunities," Root said.

Having a six-year term in leadership is valuable in that it will allow her and her colleagues to do longer-term planning, implementation and assessment, she said. The overlap with the current president and board members helps form strong relationships and build bridges. Root is also chair of the conference committee planning the sectional meeting in Toronto next year, which will be attended by about 1,200 people. The sectional and global groups alternate years for their bi-annual meetings.

Root has been a member of the global society since she was a graduate student at the Florida Institute of Technology. Her first exposure to it came when she unexpectedly had to take the place of her graduate adviser, Dr. Hilary Swain, at the society's international conference in Guadalajara, Mexico. Swain was the SCB secretary at the time but was on maternity leave and could not attend.

"So I went in her place and had to sit in all the board meetings and take notes," Root said. "I got to talk to the leaders in my field, and it was very impressive. I really saw how much it takes to run an organization, to decide priorities and what content to include in the journals and what are the most important issues to concentrate on, what are the big questions in the field. I decided it would be a good idea to be an active member."

She was able provide something of that experience to her graduate student this summer when she took her to the international society's meeting in Cartajena, Colombia, and introduced her to other scientists and leaders in the field.

"It's a great leveler," Root said. "It gives you hope to know there is a community of like-minded people who are working on the same issues."