ASU-Conservation International Postdoc Spotlight: Elena Finkbeiner

Elena FinkbeinerThe Arizona State University–Conservation International partnership supported two postdoctoral researchers from 2017–2019 who were jointly advised by a CI scientist and an ASU faculty member to advance cutting-edge conservation research. One of the researchers, Elena M. Finkbeiner, is the Fisheries Science Program Manager for Conservation International’s Global Fisheries and Aquaculture Program. Question: What kind of research did you do as an ASU–CI postdoc? Answer: I was part of a larger effort spanning other academic institutions and nonprofit organizations who are pushing to address social responsibility in seafood production, just as environmental sustainability has been over the last decade. Recent media revelations have called attention to the horrific occurrence of modern slavery and human trafficking in fisheries and aquaculture. In response, we organized a coalition of human rights and fisheries experts to advance a global dialogue on seafood sustainability, agree upon a common definition of what socially responsible seafood means, and decide on impact pathways to address these issues. My job was to lead the co-development of an assessment tool for identifying areas of high social risks, applicable across a diversity of fisheries and aquaculture systems around the world, to inform the development of tailored and specific interventions and improvements for these systems. To maximize alignment and uptake of this work, I co-developed the assessment tool through convening  experts, public comment periods, and other mechanisms for integrating a diversity of feedback and values. Q: What are you doing now? A: After completing my postdoc, I was hired full time by Conservation International as the Fisheries Science Program Manager. I am very humbled and excited to take on this new opportunity, and grateful to ASU for opening this door! In my current position at CI, I work across our coastal community fisheries and social responsibility programs within the Center for Oceans to coordinate and support the transition of fisheries towards environmental sustainability and social responsibility. As part of this, I liaise with numerous CI country programs working in fisheries, provide online and in-person training on how to conduct social responsibility and environmental sustainability assessments in fisheries (both to CI staff and to staff at many other partner organizations). I also continue to socialize this body of work at conferences and support fundraising efforts to further advance our knowledge and practice of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable fisheries. Q: How do you feel your tenure as an ASU-CI postdoc prepped you for your current role?  A: Transitioning from an academic setting in my role previous to ASU, to working as a conservation practitioner at CI was a really big change for me. My postdoc at ASU provided a really important learning experience for me during this transition, so I could be fully prepared as a practitioner at the onset of my full time hire at CI. I learned some invaluable lessons over the course of my time at ASU working at the nexus of research and conservation. Q: What do you think the value is in for higher educational institutions to partner with an organization like CI? A: I think there is a tremendous amount of value both for the university and for the organization. For me, it afforded me the opportunities I described above. At the highest level, these types of partnerships ensure that university research is salient and relevant to current conservation priorities, and that practitioner organizations have the supplemental capacity and expertise to carry out research. I also think there is incredible value in exposing university students to the practical skills needed to work in conservation as done through the ASU-CI Professor of Practice Program. Finally, university students are invaluable to conservation organizations as interns and contractors conducting research. Q: Where would you like the ASU-CI partnership to go in future? A: Perhaps there could be a formal mechanism to fund and foster ASU graduate and undergraduate students involvement in CI projects for theses or capstone projects. Q: What environmental challenge that we (humanity) face concerns you the most? Why? A: This is a really hard question. I could respond with climate change, or over fishing, or fill in the blank here! But I think our problem is more ideological, in that we still construe environmental problems and social problems as two fundamentally different things. We either tackle one or the other, citing lack of expertise, or over-complexity as reasons why we should regard them as two distinct phenomena. This leads to very narrow and compartmentalized solutions and policy responses that really only solve one facet of the problem, or in many cases cause a slew of unintended consequences. In reality, humans are not distinct from nature, and people need nature for our fundamental survival. We need to continue pushing science and conservation practices towards interdisciplinarity and holism to solve real world problems. Q: How is CI meeting that challenge? What is the role for higher education to meet it? A: I believe that CI is leading the way in terms of prioritizing the needs of people and respecting human rights in nature conservation. CI believes in protecting nature for people, which means understanding environmental issues as social issues, working at the nexus of different disciplines, and developing holistic and comprehensive policy and conservation responses. ASU is also a leader in this movement, especially with respect to their Global Institute of Sustainability and the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. The ASU-Conservation International partnership was established in September 2016. This collaboration seeks to make measurable advances in conservation while training the next generation of conservation leaders. Learn more about the partnership online or contact Amy Scoville-Weaver at [email protected].