Preserving the planet

When Libby Larson was a child growing up in Connecticut, she had little interest in nature. Her mother tells her that she didn’t even like to go outdoors.

Surprising for someone who has spent much her adult life outside — as an ecologist!

It wasn’t until Larson, a School of Life Sciences alumna, volunteered for a wetlands cleanup in Boston — where she lived after earning an undergraduate degree in history — that the idea of pursuing ecology occurred to her. During the cleanup, she said she discovered an entire world she never knew could exist within a city.

“A lot of people have this idea that nature only exists outside of cities,” Larson said. “I was really excited to learn a new perspective on the environment around me.”

She went back to school to make ecology her life’s work. After taking prerequisite courses and applying to graduate school, she chose ASU for its openness and interdisciplinary nature. She said she enjoyed feeling like she could talk to anyone from any area of science about anything.

“That’s not something that’s universally true at other universities,” Larson said. “I found SOLS to be an awesome place to be on a lot of different levels.”

Larson joined School of Life Sciences professor Nancy Grimm’s lab and worked on a number of projects with the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project and the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship in Urban Ecology. In 2010, she completed ASU’s PhD program in urban ecology.

More than anything, Larson credits her success to the extra-circular activities in Grimm’s lab. She learned how to parse scientific literature during reading groups, which were often set up to be fun and engaging. Since Larson came from an undergraduate experience without ever writing a single lab report, that kind of assistance with academic acclimation was crucial to her success.

Her favorite part of the experience, she said, was getting to work with so many other scientists from other fields.

“It wasn’t until I left ASU that I realized it’s way ahead of the curve when it comes to interdisciplinary research,” Larson said. “It’s really pretty special and, unfortunately, unique.”

Since graduating, Larson found a home at NASA through the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s science and technology policy fellowship. The program places PhD holders at federal agencies where they can help bring a more scientific perspective to policy-making.

On a daily basis, Larson is helping NASA find the scientists who want to research some of the most important ecological questions facing the country today. By facilitating and providing funding for research that may help preserve the planet, Larson said she couldn’t be happier with the path she has chosen.

Life sciences alumna Libby Larson works at NASA and decides which ecology research projects to fund.