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Adventurous Students Find Unexpected Paths at Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation

February 23, 2012

By Michele McDonald

Students were able to work shifts during the round-the-clock pregnancy watch for the endangered clouded leopard who gave birth to two cubs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Creative Services photo

Last fall’s semester at the newly named Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, Va., sent Giulia Manno down an unexpected path.

“I went in thinking I would be interested in research,” says Manno, an integrative studies major in Mason’s New Century College. Then she heard a lecture about environmental economics by Peter Balint, associate professor of public and international affairs.

“That was a big turning point for me,” she says. “I realized if I really want to make a difference, then I should learn about business.”

Manno, who expects to graduate in spring 2013, made business her minor and started taking business classes this semester.

That’s just the kind of eye-opening experience the program is designed to give, says Alonso Aguirre, associate professor and executive director of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.

Last semester, 15 undergraduate students lived at the 3,200-acre Front Royal campus and took classes in conservation studies. The program also has a graduate and professional studies program. The campus expands this fall with room for 60 undergraduate and 60 graduate students.

The campus itself is part of the curriculum, as it is housed at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Students live near endangered animals such as clouded leopards, black-footed ferrets, maned wolves, cheetahs, Eurasian cranes, red pandas and Przewalski’s horses.

Students take water samples on the Shenandoah River. Creative Services photo

“You get to go outside the classroom, and you’re in the mountains,” Manno says. “From our dorms, you can hear the wolves howling at night.”

Like Manno, many other students get to learn about a side of conservation that’s new to them.

“Environmental economics is a relatively new field, but we’ve been talking about it for years,” Aguirre says. “I think we need to give a price to a giraffe, a price to a forest. We’re trying to find new ways to protect the environment. There has to be a monetary benefit, not just beauty. Environmental economics has been lacking in other conservation programs.”

According to Balint, attaching a price tag to environmental assets first went mainstream in the United States with the cap-and-trade program to reduce air pollution built into the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Now, incentive-based environmental policy approaches are here to stay.

“Before, people concerned about conservation saw polluters as bad, even evil,” Balint says. “Whereas, after the 1990 amendments, they began to understand that it’s a matter of the incentives. You have to give corporations and consumers the proper incentives and then they will do the right thing.”

A National Park Service ranger explains how air quality is tested. Creative Services photo

This economic approach can come as a complete surprise to some students, Balint adds. “These are more complex problems than they think they are,” he says. “I try to get students to question their own assumptions.”

Lissett Medrano’s experience at the Front Royal campus also set her on a new career path in fall 2010. She was majoring in global affairs with a concentration on Asia when she learned about the Smithsonian-Mason program.

“I’ve always had a passion about conservation,” Medrano says. “But I never really thought my interests could apply to a career.

“After the Smithsonian-Mason Semester, I realized this is what I want to do,” she says. “Sometimes it felt like an episode of “The Magic School Bus” — you’re learning and having so much fun at the same time.”

She decided to minor in environmental policy after that semester and graduated in May 2011. The experience helped land her a job as an executive coordinator at the nonprofit Conservation International.

Other students already know what they want to do, and the program adds to their overall experience.

As a youngster growing up in rural southern New Jersey, Jeff Dragon became fascinated with turtles. “My parents would always rescue them off the roads,” recalls Dragon, who’s earning a master’s degree in environmental science and policy.

After a while, he stopped seeing his favorite reptile slowly making its way across the countryside and wanted to know why. “I didn’t know as a kid that ‘rare’ meant they were a threatened species,” he says.

He’s now studying wood turtles, which live on land and hibernate in rivers. “Anything that harms the water and the land harms this turtle,” he says.

He learned about his current internship working with wood turtles during the Smithsonian-Mason Semester. “It really opens up internship possibilities,” he says of the program.

For Amanda Sills, a biology major who graduates this spring, the semester strengthened her convictions. She already had a fisheries internship before the semester at Front Royal and wanted to try something new.

She wasn’t totally sure about going into fisheries for a living. “I came to (Front Royal) with an open mind. I worked with the Micronesian Kingfisher bird, which is extinct in the wild. It just blew my mind to work with birds like that.”

In the end, however, she decided she still loves fish — the cuttlefish in particular.

“This is amazing,” she says of working with the iridescent birds. “But it’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be out in the field (working with fish). I would like to do research with a conservation bent.”

For more information on the program, visit the website.