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Save the planet (and get a great job)

Source: University of Vermont

The Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont is gaining a reputation as a launchpad for PhD students and postdocs, providing ground-breaking research opportunities and sparking exciting environmental careers.

Based in Burlington, Vermont – a historic lakeside college town – the Gund Institute’s mission is to catalyze interdisciplinary research, connect scholars with society’s leaders, and develop real-world solutions to urgent global issues.

Mentored by world-class faculty, Gund PhD students and postdocs collaborate widely on environmental issues at the interface of four pressing themes: climate solutions, health and well-being, sustainable agriculture, and resilient communities.

This unique interdisciplinary experience has an impact. Gund alumni are parlaying pioneering research into so-called ‘dreamjobs’, protecting the environment with leading organizations from the World Bank to The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund, or returning to top university positions in their home countries.

Discovery: Amazon deforestation

In two years at the University of Vermont (UVM), Gund postdoc Laura Sonter contributed to range of pioneering studies in top journals before returning to her native Australia, landing a faculty position at the University of Queensland.

Sonter led the first comprehensive study of mining deforestation in the Amazon forest, published in Nature Communications.


Analyzing 10 years of deforestation data from Brazil’s space agency, Sonter’s team found that sprawling mining operations in Brazil are destroying much more of the iconic Amazon than previously thought.

Surprisingly, roughly 90 percent of deforestation related to mining occurred outside the mining leases granted by the Brazilian government, extending as far 70 km. This is largely due to infrastructure, including worker housing and new roads, railways and airports.

“Mining is now a substantial cause of Amazon forest loss,” says Laura Sonter, who was mentored by the Gund Institute’s Taylor Ricketts, one of the world’s most influential environmental scholars. “Previous estimates assumed mining caused one or two percent of deforestation. But hitting the 10 percent threshold is alarming and warrants action,” she says.

Laura Sonter. Source: University of Vermont

Sonter plans to continue collaborating with her Gund colleagues. “Hands down the best part of my time at the Gund was being surrounded by a group of extremely passionate, smart and fun people,” says Sonter. “Burlington, Vermont is a dream city – great nature, music, art, food and community.”

Food leader: alum joins the Nature Conservancy

Michael Wironen was hired by one of the world’s largest conservation organizations just weeks after completing his PhD – but not before giving Vermont leaders some serious food for thought.

As a UVM PhD student, Wironen gave the state’s phosphorus pollution problem a forensic accounting straight out of a police procedural. Call it CSI: Global Dairy Industry.

Wironen’s research revealed that Vermont’s phosphorus surplus has been growing for decades at a rate of over 1,000 tons per year, largely due to imports of agricultural fertilizer and feed containing phosphorus.

Shortly after his results were published, Wironen got a crash course in science and policy communication, presenting to state senators, policymakers and journalists from newspapers, radio and TV.

Wironen was hired by The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s largest environmental organizations, which works in 72 countries and 50 states. He is a Senior Scientist for Agriculture and Food Systems, based in Washington, DC.

Michael Wironen. Source: University of Vermont

“Most of my time is spent working with major global agribusinesses to transform their business practices to help scale up sustainable agriculture and food systems,” says Wironen, who received support from the Gund to travel to Brazil, Sweden, Australia and Canada for academic conferences.

“My new job is great – challenging, exciting, yet in a workplace that is friendly, not too stressful, and filled with smart people,” he says. “Kind of like the Gund.”

Banking for change: alum joins World Bank

Phoebe Spencer always wanted to go beyond the hallowed halls of academia to apply her expertise in inequality and environmental issues to real-world problems.

And that’s exactly what the Gund grad is doing. Two months after completing her PhD in natural resources, Spencer landed a job at the World Bank. The 28-year-old is working to address the impacts of poverty and natural resource depletion, from air pollution to deforestation.

During her PhD, Spencer landed a prized internship with the United Nations, examining gender inequality around the globe and contributing to The World’s Women 2015 Report.

“The UN experience was a total game-changer,” says Spencer, who credits a fall semester at their New York headquarters for inspiring her dissertation on gender inequality in the face of environmental instability.

“Getting the chance to learn from top experts, apply my training and make real contributions, it gave me a huge amount of confidence, and validation, that this is the right path for me.”

Phoebe Spencer. Source: University of Vermont

Spencer found a like-minded crew – academically and socially – at the Gund Institute. As a university-wide environmental research accelerator, the Gund Institute brings together scholars from diverse colleges and disciplines – from ecologists and economists to engineers, data scientists and policy experts – to tackle critical global environmental issues.

UVM Prof. Jon Erickson, a leading ecological economist was Spencer’s faculty advisor. He sees her as a “social change agent” who can stir things up on the world stage.

“We’re trying to create a whole new generation of thought leaders who question the status quo,” says Erickson. “We want to produce citizens, rather than consumers, with the skills to help build a more sustainable future.”

Big data, wetlands and children’s health

Pioneering research by Diego Herrera, a Gund postdoc from Costa Rica, found that kids living in watersheds with greater tree cover are less likely to experience diarrheal disease, the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five.

Diego Herrera. Source: University of Vermont

Published in Nature Communications, the research is the first use of a massive new database that will enable ‘big data’ approaches to study links between human health and the environment, globally. The database features 150 variables for 500,000 households in over 35 nations.

“This research suggests that protecting watersheds, in the right circumstances, can double as a public health investment,” says Herrera, whose mentors included the Gund Institute’s Brendan Fisher, who explores human behavior, conservation and economics.

Weeks before Herrera’s postdoc ended, he joined the Environmental Defense Fund as an environmental economist, targeting forest protection in Brazil, wetland restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, impact evaluation, and conservation finance.

Learn more about PhD and postdoctoral fellowships at the Gund Institute and the University of Vermont. 

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