Varsha Vijay

UCS Science Network member Varsha Vijay

Varsha Vijay is a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland where she is examining the effectiveness of protected areas to meet ecological and socio-economic goals of conservation. She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Her dissertation examined the impacts of agricultural expansion on biodiversity and habitat loss.

Science Network Spotlight: Varsha Vijay

Why did you join the UCS Science Network?

Our understanding of the natural world and of the impacts of human activities on species and habitat loss keeps changing. Given the urgency of addressing conservation issues, my role as a conservation ecologist extends beyond publication in scientific journals to both communicating and engaging other populations and disciplines in our work. My aim has always been to produce actionable science that helps minimize the environmental impacts of achieving societal goals.

Impacts of agriculture on ecosystems and biodiversity

One of the critical ways that humans shape the natural world is our increasing demand for food resources, which leads to both intensification and expansion of agriculture, both of which can impact ecosystems and biodiversity. Intensification can lead to greater impacts from pesticides and fertilizers, while expansion can cause habitat loss and increased human-wildlife conflict. Our societies must therefore weigh the environmental costs of different paths to increased food production.

One of the commodity crops of particular concern is oil palm, which grows almost exclusively in areas that were once tropical forests. These same forests are often hotspots of global importance in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. In partnership with the UCS Tropical Science and Carbon Initiative and other colleagues, we explored recent deforestation for oil palm plantations and identified forests vulnerable to future deforestation from oil palm expansion. We also showed that these vulnerable forests contain some of the greatest species diversity on the planet, making their loss problematic.

In that work, we found a high proportion of oil palm plantations in South America came from recent deforestation, identifying it as an emerging frontier of oil palm expansion. Our follow-up study focused on the Peruvian Amazon, an area where we saw both the greatest deforestation and increase in oil palm plantations. This new study confirmed our initial deforestation findings in more detail. It also showed key differences between oil palm and other crops grown in the region and identified a need for strengthening and expanding protections of forest areas in this region. By narrowing our focus, we were able to provide more detail on specific forest types threatened and even how past changes in policy may have changed which forests were threatened.

Today, oil palm plantation expansion continues to occur at the expense of forests not thought of as being in imminent danger of agricultural development. Though awareness is growing, it continues to be an issue with which both science and media struggle to keep up. The lessons learned from this research can be used to support increases in protected area and species threat status, in monitoring programs and voluntary market interventions.

My interests in exploring issues related to agricultural expansion has led me to explore some other topics, including working on a National Geographic funded project to assess cheetah range and population in Southern Africa. Our study showed that areas with high human and livestock density are much less likely to support cheetah populations. Where agriculture and cheetah ranges do overlap, it may result in human-wildlife conflict, resulting in the killing of cheetah in numbers that could impact the survival of local populations.

Advocacy and the actionability of science

Though I do very much see myself in a knowledge-sharing role rather than advocacy for particular policies, the goal of my research is that it is actionable. Conservation ecology focuses on topics useful in creating policy and on-the-ground initiatives that prevent future species extinctions. I have tried to develop a better understanding of what policy makers and stakeholders want to know, so I can better use my expertise and findings to comment on policy. As an early career scientist, being part of the UCS Science Network has helped me develop my outreach skills and given me connections to a diverse community of scientists with similar goals. I feel inspired to be part of a larger movement of scientists in environmental fields that have recognized the importance of communication and public engagement.

When I speak to others about conservation, I focus on presenting the methods in addition to findings and conclusions. So often in media coverage of science, the mechanics of how the science is done is missing from the story. I worry that this can feed narratives about the inaccessibility of science and misunderstandings of uncertainty as it relates to scientific findings. Depending on interest and audience, I might share photos of fieldwork, raw or processed datasets or models, visualization tools or participatory activities. Sometimes the reaction is “Wow, that’s so interesting!”, while other times people say, “That must be a lot of (repetitive) work.” I think both reactions are accurate. Science is both a field of exciting discoveries and dogged pursuit of truth by exhaustive efforts.

The most important goal when I am sharing my science is to connect it to people’s lives. Many questions in conservation involve human activities and their environmental consequences, so this connection is often quite clear. I have also been fortunate that many of my scientific mentors and colleagues share my view that scientists’ communication with the public should be the start of a longer conversation. This is very much a two-way street with scientists learning from the public, not just dispensing facts to them. Many of the questions I receive when I share my science with the public are as insightful as those I get from colleagues. They often force me to see my work in a different light. Being forced to articulate my work to the public is the best test of what I know.

In fact, I see my information sharing efforts as a separate field of inquiry within my research. I have tried a variety of approaches to communicate the same or similar information and I have ideas about what will be effective. Sometimes I’m incorrect about that. By responding to feedback and altering my approach, I hope I can continue to grow as a scientist and communicator. I find it heartening that I am part of a community of scientists, exemplified by the UCS Science Network, that share similar values and goals in public outreach.