Jessica Ruthenberg (MS ’11)
Watchable Wildlife Biologist, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources
What did it mean to you to be named a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow? What were some of the activities and opportunities that held the greatest impact for you?
Being named a Doris Duke Fellow meant everything to me. I had been working towards a rather drastic career change for a few years prior to beginning graduate school. Starting the program at SEAS marked a major milestone in that journey. I was so honored to be accepted into SEAS, but I was plagued by imposter syndrome that entire first semester. Despite these feelings, I pursued the Doris Duke Fellowship because it offered such a fabulous opportunity and its description fit my career goals exactly. I was incredibly surprised and elated when I learned that I was selected as a fellow; it was this amazing feeling of validation that I was indeed following the correct career path.
The leadership training at the National Conservation Training Center was a great experience. I really enjoyed meeting the Doris Duke Fellows from other schools, and it was inspiring to meet and hear from leaders in the conservation field. However, what held the greatest impact for me was the opportunity to work a summer internship as an Agricultural Conservation Programs Policy Analyst for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at their office in Arlington, Virginia. This was an unpaid internship that I would not have been able to accept without the support of the Doris Duke Fellowship. I learned so much from my experience at USFWS through my project work and the meetings I attended with leaders in this field, and I even had the opportunity to attend committee meetings in the U.S. Capitol. I met some great people at the USFWS, with whom I still keep in touch, and it was a huge resume builder for me that helped to open other doors.
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
My experience at SEAS was fully immersive. I completed a dual specialization in Conservation Biology and Behavior, Education, and Communication, so my coursework really kept me busy, but I enjoyed it and have found much of it to be relevant to my career. The combination of specializations that I chose has proven to be a somewhat unique one within the field, and I found that employers have been attracted by that particular combination, instilling confidence within them that not only would I bring knowledge of conservation biology to the job, but that I could also communicate effectively with others about it. I found that I drew upon my master’s project experience in many of my job interviews. SEAS’ emphasis on teamwork, in both the courses and my master’s project, has been incredibly valuable and really prepared me for working in this profession, in which I work on numerous teams and am always needing to collaborate with colleagues and partners. It also taught me how to run effective meetings. I also took full advantage of the career services offered by SEAS and would recommend that to any current student. They taught me how to craft strong resumes and cover letters, which helped me to land many job interviews.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
It seems that there is increasing interest in private landowners to participate in conservation and looking to take advantage of the federal and state programs available to assist with these efforts. Their successful engagement in these programs is vital to the goals of conservation given that a majority of U.S. land is under private ownership. Even on the smaller scale, there also seems to be increasing awareness and interest amongst suburban homeowners to plant native plants to benefit pollinators and birds. In the cumulative, even these smaller measures can make a major difference for declining pollinator species and to help keep our common birds common. The interest amongst these private landowners and suburban homeowners is encouraging, but we also need to ensure that we maintain and even increase the resources available, so that we may continue to support their efforts.
One of the major challenges to grapple with in land conservation is climate change and where to set our priorities and concentrate our efforts, particularly in coastal areas, given the potential for sea level rise that we may witness over the next 60 years. One major area of encouragement right now is the momentum of Recovering America’s Wildlife Act within Congress. If this bill passes, it will be a game changer for state wildlife agencies, providing them with a massive increase in annual funding to support the conservation of wildlife and plant species of greatest conservation need, as well as funding for wildlife conservation education and recreation projects.
Note: Prior to 2017, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) was known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). References to “SNRE” have been updated to “SEAS” to reflect the name change.