By Published: Dec. 13, 2022

The Ecological Society of America has honored Karen Bailey for her work as an interdisciplinary ecologist

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) has named Karen Bailey, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, as one of four ESA Excellence in Ecology (EEE) Scholars for 2022.

The Excellence in Ecology scholarship program is intended for early to mid-career ESA members who have earned a PhD within the past 20 years, with a focus on supporting and elevating diverse scientists within the ecological community, according to the ESA.

ESA EEE Scholars receive a $5,000 award over two years to support their work, which can include covering travel costs associated with speaking opportunities at ESA conferences and covering publication fees for one of ESA’s open-access journals.

“In order to meet the environmental problem-solving challenges of the Anthropocene, ecologists must elevate the human dimension by broadening participation and perspectives in the practice of ecology. The ESA Excellence in Ecology program, now in its second cohort, supports career development of diverse ESA ecologists and promotes innovative research in social-ecological systems to address global environmental concerns,” said Carmen Cid, ESA diversity committee chair.

It's just exciting and also really humbling because the scholars that I share the award with are also really accomplished and doing a wonderful and amazing work.

Bailey said she is honored to have her work recognized by ESA, which was founded in 1915 and is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists.

“It's just exciting and also really humbling because the scholars that I share the award with are also really accomplished and doing a wonderful and amazing work,” she said.

Bailey is an interdisciplinary ecologist interested in justice and equality in ecology, human-environment interactions, climate change and sustainable rural livelihoods. A Los Angeles native, she received her bachelor’s degree from Princeton and her MS and PhD from the University of Florida in ecology and evolutionary biology, and interdisciplinary wildlife and conservation, respectively.

She recently answered five questions about her work, its implications and her outside interests:

Question: Can you talk just a bit about your current research focus, and why you find the work important and rewarding?

Bailey: I broadly describe my work as looking at the relationships between people and their environments—how they're changing, and how they can be improved to support human health and well-being. Also, conservation and natural resource management and sustainability in really equitable and inclusive ways are kind of at the core of the work that I do.

I have work in a few different subcategories within that broader category of human environment, interactions and human well-being. One is focused on human-wildlife conflict and coexistence and is largely focused on a research project in Southeast Asia, looking at human-elephant conflict and coexistence. And that work is really important, because we're largely focusing on areas where elephant habitat has been in decline even as human population growth has been increasing—and climate change is threatening access to natural resources for both populations.

In a lot of these places, elephants will leave landscapes that are protected and go into people's farms and communities and eat their crops, which has really negative impacts on human health. And an elephant or a herd of elephants could drastically destroy what a farm or household might live off of for an extended period of time.

Karen Bailey

At the top of the page: Karen Bailey, an assistant professor in environmental studies, helping rangers outside of Murchison National park in Uganda setup rain collection devices to study climate and livelihoods in Uganda. Photo by Joel Hartter. Above: Bailey speaks during the EU visit. Photo by Glenn Asakawa.

So, it has some really significant impacts for human health and well-being, and then there are retaliatory killings of elephants as well. That has a negative impact that can lead to human harm directly from the elephants.

We're really trying to understand what strategies are available, how we can understand what resources people have access to engage in different farming strategies … and really understand human and elephant behavior and what can support human livelihoods along with elephant conservation. So, that's been exciting work.

Question: You also have a number of on-going research projects in the United States?

Bailey: Yes. We're also doing some work in the Northeast and upstate New York, and also here in Colorado, Wyoming and in Utah, on water. In those places, water concerns are different.

In New York, flooding is the concern. In Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, drought is the concern. But we're really trying to understand how individuals, households and communities are being impacted by flooding and drought.

And, in particular, in New York, the emphasis is on flood mitigation efforts, such as buyouts of property and the buying of land to prevent development, to protect watersheds, and to minimize flood risk and how that impacts local communities.

And then here (in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah), we are looking at communities that are reliant on tourism around reservoirs and understanding how folks are dealing with drought, water scarcity, low water levels in reservoirs, and how that's impacting their livelihoods, and what are the opportunities for climate adaptation.

Another category of research that's worth highlighting is on equity, justice, diversity, accessibility and inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and natural resource fields … and trying to understand: What are the experiences of those from under-represented backgrounds in conservation and natural resource management? What are some of the challenges and opportunities for increasing diversity representation in these fields?

Question: In addition to your position with the University of Colorado, you also have a role with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. How did come about and what do you see as your role in the commission?

Bailey: I applied at the suggestion of a colleague who I knew through my natural resource and wildlife work. She was formerly on the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, with an emphasis on ecology and environmental and wildlife impacts of oil and gas development. I got a call from the governor's office also encouraging me to apply. So, I did.

And then I had a couple of conversations with current commissioners about their experiences, and a few conversations with the governor to just learn a little bit more about what he saw important issues for Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission in the coming years. I ultimately decided to accept the appointment with the goal of having an impact beyond the academic sphere, which is something that's important to me.

Just as a bit of background on the commission, there are 11 voting members, and there are three specific categories of interest that have been historically represented: hunting and outfitting, agriculture and production, and then a non-consumptive use of natural resources and recreation.

And one sort of interest, for lack of a better word, that's not represented is science. That's one of the reasons that the governor expressed an interest in having me serve, was to have someone with science expertise represented on the commission.

But I really love being able to mentor students and teach them in the classroom and engage students with their research. That really brings me joy.

There are some very diverse opinions within the commission … and that's another reason why I was compelled to participate. I teach a graduate course on conflict management and collaboration in environmental settings, and so I'm fascinated and interested in conflict management, and how we approach collaboration and coalition building around contentious natural resource and environmental issues, and certainly there's a lot of that happening now.

Question: What is your favorite thing about being a professor at CU Boulder?

Bailey: Definitely teaching and working with students. I often say that if I didn't enjoy teaching as much as I do, I might be working for an environmental organization or perhaps a development organization. But I really love being able to mentor students and teach them in the classroom and engage students with their research.

That really brings me joy.

Question: Outside of the university, what are your some of your favorite activities?

Bailey: The simple answer is, I am a nerd (laughs) … so I sometimes host virtual science trivia night with the organization 500 Women Scientists, a national science organization supporting women and inclusively in STEM and so I do a lot of work with them, and with the Boulder pod in particular.

I also had a podcast … called The Creature Connection that’s all about our connection to fictional worlds and fictional creatures. In it, I interviewed people with backgrounds historically under-representative in fiction about the movies, books, TV shows and video games that have creatures in them that they felt connected to and why. I did five episodes last year and I haven't really done much since, but that's another thing that I hope to get back to at some point.