Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Global Sustainability Scholars provides early career scientists with immersive field experiences

CIRES Ph.D. student spent the summer studying sustainable oceans in Madagascar

A bright orange and red sunset over the water in southwest Madagascar
The sunsets near Naya O'Reilly's field site in southwest Madagascar
- Naya O'Reilly

For Naya O’Reilly (they/them), daily life in Madagascar this summer never looked the same. One morning began with Malagasy language lessons, followed by a bike taxi to a nearby village where they spent hours wading against the tide to measure the density and species of seagrass. The next day, they jumped on a research boat that took them out to sea to scuba dive to the ocean floor to study artificial coral reefs. 

O’Reilly, a CIRES and CU Boulder Environmental Studies graduate student, spent 10 weeks of the summer working alongside three other students in Southwest Madagascar studying coral, seagrass, and sustainable food systems. 

“Any opportunity to be close to the ocean, I’m going to jump on,” said O’Reilly. “I’m a scuba diver, and marrying that experience with hands-on research sounded interesting.”

O’Reilly’s fellowship in Madagascar was through Global Sustainability Scholars (GSS), an NSF-funded program at CU Boulder that became part of CIRES in 2022. The program focuses on sustainable oceans, which aligns perfectly with O’Reilly’s interests. They wanted to study how climate change impacts communities, fisheries, and food preferences in Madagascar, where prolonged drought has had a significant impact on food security.

GSS supports aspiring scientists through three unique programs: scholars, fellows, and RaMP-UP. Scholars and fellows immerse themselves in a 10-week paid summer research project. Recent graduates selected for RaMP-UP spend one year in Panama with scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 

Kirsten Rowell has directed the NSF-funded program since its founding in 2018. 

“GSS is an unparalleled opportunity for early career scientists from diverse backgrounds to engage in inclusive science focused on sustainability projects all over the world,” said Rowell. 

The program has three goals: get underrepresented early-career sustainability scholars into the field for hands-on experiences, build a network of experienced researchers, and create relationships and shared knowledge with local communities. 

O’Reilly’s fellowship included collaboration with the nonprofit ARMSRestore, which creates artificial coral reefs; researchers from Harvard University and the University of Toliara in Madagascar; and engagement with the local community along the country’s southwest coast. 

Prior to their Ph.D. work at CU Boulder, O’Reilly’s master’s research dove into the economics of saving humpback whales. Like many students, the pandemic stifled the opportunity to conduct in-person interviews, so they shifted to quantitative models to complete their research, but the fellowship in Madagascar allowed them to revisit their passion for qualitative research. They conducted 35 interviews with local fishers to learn about how fishing communities view conservation and endangered species.

“I really wanted to be an interdisciplinary researcher, and this opportunity opened my eyes, to the fact that I’m capable of doing interviews, working with fishers, and talking to communities,” O’Reilly said. “And I really want to continue to do that work.”

O’Reilly returned to Boulder on July 25. Since then, they’ve worked with their advisor, CIRES Fellow and director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures Matt Burgess. Together, they’ve discussed how the research in Madagascar laid the foundation for their doctoral thesis. 

O’Reilly plans to research marine policy and global fishing practices in three regions: the U.S. Southeast Asia, and Latin America. The goal is to identify practices that are destructive to ecosystems and communities while providing options and alternatives that prioritize community needs and livelihoods over results. 

Burgess is excited to see their research evolve and grow. 

“It’s one thing to read about issues of marine conservation and sustainable livelihoods, and it’s another thing to witness them firsthand,” said Burgess. “It is exciting to see Naya translating their experience in the field into new research questions and hypotheses for their Ph.D.”

As the school year kicks off, O’Reilly is busy at work sifting through countless pages of quotes and stories they collected, and they plan to dive deeper before publishing results. In terms of their Ph.D, they are on track— and they give GSS credit for that. 

“It opened all my possibilities,” O’Reilly said. “It made me realize I can continue to branch out and become an expert in numerous things rather than just one; I would say it formed my Ph.D.” 


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