The Alumni Spotlight series includes interviews from Earth Institute alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in our programs, and any advice that could be useful to current and future students.
Growing up in Texas, Stacia Carrington spent her free time exploring creeks, catching tadpoles, and developing a love for the natural world around her. As she explored her love of nature further, she grew passionate about learning about the plight of elephants and other threatened wildlife around the world, and how to protect them.
After earning her undergraduate degree in pre-med and art history from the University of Texas at Austin, Stacia realized that med school was not the path that she wanted to pursue. While considering her options, she worked as a wardrobe stylist for commercial and print fashion. Soon, she missed doing more analytical work and transitioned to a new job as an executive assistant in private equity and financial management. Although she found these positions to be valuable learning experiences, Stacia still knew that her dream would be to work in wildlife conservation; she just didn’t know how to get her foot in the door.
Living in New York City allowed Stacia to begin coming across opportunities to get involved in junior committees for NGOs and non-profits. She first worked with Tusk for a couple of years, and then as a young patron for the Wildlife Conservation Society. She also served as a member of the Explorers Club Conservation Council. As a result, Stacia was finally able to explore opportunities in the conservation world. However, she knew she needed a masters degree in order to transition to working in conservation full time and fully focusing on what she’s passionate about.
Stacia was drawn to Columbia University’s Master’s in Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program because it is a “practical program rather than a traditional research master’s program.” She was excited to join a program that would allow her to build skills in a one-year intensive curriculum to propel her career forward. Stacia found the program particularly attractive because she learned of the impactful careers in conservation being lived out by many others who had graduated from the MPA-ESP program. Stacia knew that having access to Columbia’s resources, as well as the policy focus and international reach at the School of International and Pubic Affairs, would be helpful in her career in conservation. She was certain that learning more about policy was essential for her because it plays such a key role in conservation, particularly in her primary area of interest — combatting wildlife trafficking — where good legislation and effective enforcement is key. Additionally, Stacia liked that the program involved a lot of teamwork. The collaborative approach of the MPA-ESP program translates well to the real-world work environment, where the best ideas and outcomes arise from collaboration.
While in the MPA-ESP program, Stacia enhanced her skills in program management during the summer policy workshop. She also gained indispensable knowledge about the science behind legislation, and she boosted her analytical skills. “This program produces policymakers that understand the science,” Stacia noted.
Stacia really enjoyed the program’s capstone project because it gave her the chance to apply what she had learned. Her capstone was with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The organization had just joined the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and wanted to propose policy motions while attending their first World Conservation Congress (WCC). For their MPA-ESP capstone projects, Stacia and her groupmates helped IFAW develop and plan their policy motions. They reviewed motions, determinations, and recommendations from past WCCs to determine what was successful and why, in order to advise IFAW on what to bring to WCC. Stacia was excited to have the opportunity to prepare the two initial drafts of motions, one of which was about tackling online illegal wildlife trade and was adopted by IUCN’s motion working group. This process helped Stacia to have a better understanding of illegal wildlife trade issues, and ultimately fueled her desire to work on the issue of illegal wildlife trade after graduating.
Stacia’s experience in the MPA-ESP program expanded her knowledge of policy, while also giving her the opportunity to take some courses in the Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) department. One course that she remembers finding especially interesting was a conservation biology course with Sara Kross that highlighted the gaps in knowledge and communication between the world of conservation policy and conservation science.
Towards the end of her time in the MPA-ESP program, a colleague introduced Stacia to the work of Focused Conservation, an organization dedicated to mitigating the wildlife trafficking crisis, and she immediately knew that she wanted to work for them after graduating. To get her foot in the door, Stacia volunteered for Focused Conservation during her final semester in the MPA-ESP program. She also gained more experience by volunteering at another organization called Zooterra, filling the role of the external relations director, in which she worked to establish conservation partnerships with other organizations.
After graduating from the MPA-ESP program in 2019, Stacia landed a position as the policy engagement consultant for Focused Conservation. This job allows Stacia to draw on her science-based policy background from the MPA-ESP program because the organization values policy education in their work.
Stacia is proud to work for such a unique and results-driven organization. Founded by William Brown, former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and attaché to Kenya, the organization has expertise in investigating illegal wildlife trafficking and an understanding of the criminal organizations behind it. Focused Conservation is able to collect intelligence on the ground through investigation and interacting with government officials. The organization also provides briefings on the investigations directly to government officials. Stacia finds satisfaction working on the illegal wildlife trade crisis not only because of her passion for conservation, but also because the issue of wildlife trafficking overlaps with many other important issues, including national security and global health.
Stacia’s current project at Focused Conservation, Voices from the Arena, will serve as an educational tool for members of Congress, government officials abroad, the private sector, and more. The goal is to build urgency and foster momentum for policy initiatives on wildlife trafficking in the United States and internationally. Stacia is currently working on project management for the Voices from the Arena pilot. She also spearheaded the pilot proposal, and through this work she has been able to attract the necessary funding for her program. Stacia’s day-to-day work currently also involves spending a lot of time on the phone coordinating and working on public relations, as well as distribution and media strategies for Voices from the Arena.
Stacia’s other project involvement at Focused Conservation, the Global Sync Program, is based on intelligence-sharing to fill knowledge gaps, capacity gaps and connectivity gaps around the wildlife trafficking issue. She does a lot of administrative work with this program to better inform policy via improved information sharing.
Over the long term, Stacia sees herself continuing on her current path. She is where she wants to be: working in policy, particularly in the role of advising on wildlife trade policy, and educating policymakers on the issue to help them to make the connection from policy to on-the-ground action. She is also determined to more effectively connect people working on the ground (e.g., rangers and investigators combating wildlife trafficking) to policymakers so that policy is better informed and more effective.
In conservation, as well as in many other disciplines, Stacia believes that building good relationships is crucial. She suggests that anyone looking to work in conservation should make time for networking and, “try not to be afraid to reach out to people to form connections.”
“Successful conservation is about working together, and more organizations need to adopt a collaborative approach,” she says. “[W]hen you know what others are doing, you end up thinking about problems from multiple different angles, and understanding that different groups are tackling the problem in different ways. Often you find that forming partnerships with those who have different approaches can lead you to the best overall strategy for accomplishing the goal.”
Stacia also emphasized that persistence is essential if you want to work in conservation. “If you know in your heart that you want to make a difference in conservation, eventually it’ll happen if you just keep at it. Take a job that gets your foot in the door in a different department, [and] just keep at it for that role that you really want, especially if you have some experience. Be strategic. Network. Express how passionate you really are, and you’ll get there.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Pearl Gray (email@example.com) with any questions or to schedule a campus visit.