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Passionate storytelling and community-based conservation solutions

By

Margaret Coulombe

Stories are powerful things. This one starts like this: Andrew Smith’s biology class, in one week, changed Maxwell Wilson’s life – forever. 

“As a junior looking to go to medical school, I took Professor Smith’s 'BIO 322: Conservation Biology and Ecological Sustainability.' I wanted to knock out an elective,” Wilson recalls. Instead, Parents Professor and President's Professor Andrew Smith’s passion for community-based conservation tweaked Wilson’s career trajectory. 

He mentally shed his white coat, apprenticed in the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) program and never looked back. Only a few weeks into his master’s studies at ASU with Smith, he spoke at the President’s Professor Award’s ceremony:

“Professor Smith is not only an educator and a scientist, he is something far larger than that. He is a leader devoted to the process of learning. He is a leader who has inspired a generation of young ecologists at Arizona State University. As his students, we have been captured by his passion. We have been enthralled with his desire to learn, but most of all we have been amazed by one singular fact: Professor Smith truly cares about our learning. He knows no bounds when it comes to helping students.”

That caring is what will propel Wilson to 14,000 feet on the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai Province, the “water tower” of China. His summer field studies will take place in the Sanjiangyuan (three great rivers) National Nature Preserve, a watershed from which the Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze Rivers all originate.

“The plateau covers a quarter of China and is mostly high alpine grassland,” Wilson says. “The condition of these grasslands influences the runoff of the monsoon rains and, thus, the livelihoods of millions of people down-river subject to flooding.”

Above tree line also lives Smith’s favorite animal, the pika, a small furry relative of the rabbit that burrows in alpine grasslands. Pika are key creatures within the complex Tibetan ecosystem. Chinese policymakers poison pika, with concerns about the increasing degradation of the grasslands, heavily utilized by yak and sheep. Wilson hopes his studies in eco-hydrology can determine if the loss of pika, and subsequent collapse of their burrows, damages the grasslands’ ability to absorb water, which percolates through maintained burrows in areas where pika live. His work, funded by Smith’s National Science Foundation grant and the Phoenix Zoo, could potentially influence millions of people, policymaking and the survival of pika-eating weasels, steppe polecats, Tibetan foxes, wolves, raptors, bears, and nesting birds only found on the plateau.
 
“I really wanted to make a difference, but I don’t think before I took Professor Smith’s classes that I ever believed that I really could make a huge impact,” Wilson says.

This feeling is shared by Wilson’s former classmate, Maisah Khan, a student in the Barrett, the Honors College majoring in conservation biology and ecological sustainability and minoring in French with a certificate in international studies.

“Professor Smith’s enthusiasm and ‘anything is possible’ attitude is absolutely contagious,” Khan says.

Khan credits Smith’s mentoring as key in her own journey: “As my thesis director, he has made me more confident in my ability to take my research and my interest in the field of conservation biology to the next level.”

Khan’s thesis centers on the study of ecosystems services in the Sundarbans Reserved Forest in Bangladesh, the single largest mangrove forest in the world, which lies at the heart of the low-lying, densely populated Ganges-Brahmaputra River Delta.

Her study examines local communities’ attitudes toward the mangrove ecosystem from which they derive benefits in the form of aquaculture, such as crabs, fish and shrimp, timber and handicrafts. With $1,500 in support from the Honors College and the Center for Biology and Society in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Khan traveled to Bangladesh. There, she interviewed villagers in the small town of Mongla, faculty at the Khulna University, local forest management officers and local members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Khan and her father, who accompanied her, entered the forest with armed guards, in front and behind them, and saw sites that dreams are made of: 18-foot crocodiles, brilliant waterbirds and footsteps of Bengal tigers – overlaying the treads of their own shoes.

“Professor Smith has shown me it is possible to do what you love and love what you do,” says Khan, who will defend her thesis this May.

Wilson spins the thread of his own story this way: “Along with a huge number of facts with which I can bore everyone I know, it is a powerful and exciting thing to believe that, through good conservation science work, you really can save the world. It is this strength and optimism that I hope to pass on to others, just as Professor Smith has shared it with me.”