Alumni Profiles Series: Barbara Dugelby
Dr. Barbara Dugelby is a conservation and human ecologist who currently serves as the Director for the Wild Basin Creative Research Center in Austin, TX. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, and both her master’s degree in Resource Economics and Policy and her Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences, with a focus on tropical ecology and conservation biology, from Duke University. She has over 25 years of experience working with indigenous and local communities as well as multi-stakeholder conservation and science organizations, and developing educational programs both in the U.S. and internationally. She previously worked at The Nature Conservancy, Round River Conservation Studies and at the Organization for Tropical Studies.
What has been your career path, and what’s shaped your journey?
As a kid growing up in a small town in Texas, I had two loves: I loved nature, and I loved the idea of going to new places, going overseas. In high school, I was a rotary exchange student in Finland; while I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I attended the University of Munich for a year and a half. I also did my undergraduate thesis in Panama looking at the strategies employed by the Kuna Indians for protecting the large areas of tropical forests they have there. That tropical conservation work with indigenous people and protecting wild landscapes led me toward conservation biology, which was a brand-new field at that time.
After graduation, I spent a year advocating for the conservation of endangered species in Central Texas, but I wanted to keep learning. I started graduate school at the University of Michigan under Dr. Michael Soulé, one of the founders of the field of conservation biology. He was not a tropical biologist, my area of interest, but he connected me to Dr. John Terborgh at Duke, who was really supportive of my idea of studying the protection of large tropical forests with the help of non-timber forest product industries.
Upon receiving my master’s in Resource Economics and Policy and Ph.D. in Tropical Ecology and Conservation Biology at Duke, I wanted to explore conservation in connection with anthropology. I took a human ecologist position at The Nature Conservancy in their Latin American and Caribbean division. Then I worked for the Wildlands Project in North America for a couple of years, before shifting to establishing and directing a Latin America Program for Round River Conservation Studies for ten years. Round River brought together undergraduates to spend a semester in wild landscapes in Ecuador, Chile, or Peru, learning about conservation science and working with local conservation organizations to protect the area. Next, for three years I directed a research experience for undergraduates program through the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica, funded by NSF, that was specifically aimed at Native American and Pacific Islander students to help them conduct independent research. At this point I had been traveling for 25-30 years and wanted to move back to Central Texas, so I applied for my current job in Austin, at the Wild Basin Creative Research Center at St. Edwards University.
Tell us a bit more about Wild Basin Creative Research Center.
Wild Basin is a 227-acre wilderness preserve about ten miles from campus, co-owned and co-managed by Travis County. Students from St. Edwards University and other regional universities utilize the preserve for research, but we also offer education opportunities for K-12 students, guided hikes, and field trips to schools all over the Austin area. We also have many community engagement projects and an artist-in-residence program.
What exciting projects are you currently working on?
I started a project a few years ago with about 40 motion-triggered wildlife cameras spread throughout the preserve near the boundaries and on the hiking trails. We have a great diversity of wildlife, for examples coyotes, bobcats, ringtail cats, foxes… all the mesopredators. I wanted to understand wildlife movement across the landscape, how they move in and out of our urban preserve, and study the effect of human hiking intensity on the wildlife use of trails. But then we had the “snowpocalypse” in February 2021 with the big ice and snow storm for a week, and we also closed for about eight months during the pandemic. So now we have a really interesting dataset, where we went from very high visitation rates at the Wild Basin to absolutely no public visitors for eight months. I am excited to find out how the wildlife reacted to those changes.
What skills do you think are essential to a successful international experience and working with indigenous communities?
I think the most important task is developing the skill of listening and understanding what it means to be humble. You know, I have a Ph.D., yet one thing I learned early on in my work with indigenous and local communities was that they could do or knew things that I would never be able to do or know. So, you have to respect and use the local knowledge. What also helped me accomplish a lot of successful projects is being able to work collaboratively with people in all different sectors. Knowing languages was part of that. I speak Spanish, German and French, and so that helped a lot with that communication barrier with other cultures. But overall, I think passion is the driving factor, and if you are not passionate about the goals of a project, then it may be time to think about something else.
Looking back at your time at Duke, how did your graduate experience impact your professional life?
When I started, the graduate student body of the School of the Environment was small, and we were very supportive of each other. The faculty and the university leadership engaged us in committees, gave us responsibilities, and listened to our input. Duke University, and the School of the Environment in particular, was incredibly supportive of the graduate students.
What advice would you give to current graduate students?
Go meet your professors, spend time with them, and do not be afraid to ask questions. The more time they spend with you, the better they can help you, and the more they will understand where you are coming from.
Ph.D. candidate, Environmental Engineering
Hanna Varga is a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Mark Wiesner’s lab. She studies the impact of dust on solar panel soiling and works toward building a model to predict soiling losses from environmental parameters. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, learning languages, climbing, and getting lost in the wilderness. Check out her artworks on Instagram @trail.of.breadcrumbs.