In the midst of cascading crises from climate change to biodiversity loss and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Earth Leadership Program has announced its 2021-22 North American cohort.

Cayelan Carey, an associate professor of biological sciences in the Virginia Tech College of Science and an affiliated faculty at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Global Change Center, is one of 21 academics who have been handpicked for the 2021-22 North American cohort for the Earth Leadership Program.

She is also the first professor at Virginia Tech to receive the honor since the program’s inception in 1999.

“I was really thrilled,” said Carey. “There have been a lot of environmental scientists that I very much respect who have been selected in the past. The cohort that I am joining is an incredibly impressive group of researchers. I am really excited to meet them and learn together.”

The Earth Leadership Program provides outstanding academic researchers with the skills, approaches, and theoretical frameworks for catalyzing change. The program helps researchers address the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges, emphasizing new forms of individual and collective leadership. The program enables scientists to work collaboratively with diverse stakeholders and become agents of change within and beyond their universities.

“My focus is specifically on water,” said Carey. “Freshwater quality and quantity are becoming increasingly variable globally due to human activities, threatening critical ecosystem services such as drinking water, fisheries, and hydropower. Water is fundamental to life and society, and it is very crucial that people are engaged.”

Carey is especially excited to engage and build community with diverse stakeholders to initiate environmental change as part of the Earth Leadership Program. Carey plans to use her fellowship to learn new strategies for working with managers from water utilities, governmental officials, and homeowners to co-design and co-produce water solutions using ecological forecasting.

More specifically, Carey wants to create new ways to visualize and disseminate her ecological forecasts, which can be used to predict lake water quality. Once that has been accomplished, decision makers will have the necessary tools to improve their water management.

“If I can advance my research to develop new techniques for helping people with water forecasts, then I have met my personal goal for this program,” said Carey.

This year’s North America cohort is composed of 21 passionate academics working within a wide array of disciplines related to sustainability, from marine biology to atmospheric chemistry, governance, and economics. The fellows, who come from 11 U.S. states, Canada, and Mexico, are committed to pursuing transdisciplinary work that brings together scientific disciplines, government representatives, private sector voices, and civil society to build a more sustainable future for all.

“There are so many different ways to interact and engage with different disciplinary groups, and I am excited to learn new strategies to do that more effectively,” said Carey. “I think that true solutions for environmental problems require multiple disciplines to share their expertise. If we can successfully interact with one another, we can actually make the sum greater than our individual parts.”

As fellows, the cohort first comes together for a retreat training session that focuses on leadership skills, community-building, and personal reflection. The fellows then spend a year practicing and applying their new knowledge and skills. The following June, the fellows reconvene in a final session to integrate their learning from the practice year, learn new tools, and articulate to each other their refined visions for knowledge to impact.

“This is a huge honor,” said Carey. “I feel very grateful to have really wonderful mentors, collaborations, and colleagues here at Virginia Tech who have supported me in developing my research program. Having had the opportunity to be part of the Earth Leadership Program is really dependent on the groups that I am a part of here. This is my way of giving thanks to the Department of Biological Sciences, the Virginia Tech College of Science, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Global Change Center.”

   - Written by Kendall Daniels

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