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(LA) Women in Water: Celebrating Women's History Month

As part of #WomensHistoryMonth we celebrate the achievements of women in STEM and

highlight the influential work of women in the environmental community to inspire future generations of leaders. This year, we had the pleasure of talking with women who pursued advance studies in the sciences and set out to forge their own paths in ecology, water conservation and geospatial careers.

Sophie Parker is a Senior Scientist in the Los Angeles office of The Nature Conservancy. She has over 20 years of experience in ecology and conservation science, and has provided scientific leadership to Conservancy projects in southern California since 2008. Dr. Parker leads The Nature Conservancy of California’s Renewable Energy science team in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, and guides the organization’s stormwater capture and habitat enhancement engagement along the Los Angeles River. In addition, she is forging new methodologies for the planning and implementation of urban conservation through the Biodiversity Analysis in Los Angeles (BAILA) project. One of Sophie’s long-term career goals is to better integrate the fields of soil science and ecosystem ecology into conservation practice.

What was the path that brought you to where you are today?

I grew up in a lemon grove in Claremont, and in the small village of Mt Baldy, high in the San Gabriel Mountains. My parents were teachers and artists, and I spent a great deal of time playing outside in the grove and creek near our home. I had the good fortune to go to Wellesley College, where I was first introduced to ecology, and where my commitment to science was fostered by two professors in the Biology Department – Marianne Moore and Nick Rodenhouse. After graduation, I worked at the Insect Zoo at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, helped produce a radio and television news program about science, technology, and the environment at Harvey Mudd College; and was a research assistant at the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where I was deployed to a field station 200 km north of the Arctic Circle in Abisko, Sweden to study the impacts of climate change. I completed by Ph.D. and my postdoctoral research at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. I have been working as a scientist at The Nature Conservancy for the past ten years.

What are some of the lessons you have learned through your work?

In conservation practice, there are rarely unforeseen emergencies or quick fixes and instead long-term trends and deep commitments that result in lasting change. Through my work, I’ve learned the value of compromise, inclusiveness, and collaboration in making meaningful and lasting progress towards large goals. Keeping the long view in mind is helpful, but it also requires patience.

What would you tell young scientist who want to work in your field?

Develop your own philosophy for your work and your life. You will hear a lot of advice to “follow your passion," on one hand, or to “choose a sensible career” on the other. There is no one right way to approach work or to be well aligned or balanced with your personal needs and interests. Don’t be afraid to experiment, try something outside your comfort zone, or take a break. Everyone has a unique story, and there is no one right way to a satisfying career.

What female leader inspired or inspires you?

I am inspired by the creativity, keen observational skills, deductive reasoning prowess, and broad and expansive knowledge of female authors from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, including Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Sayers. Reading great literature written by women is one of my favorite hobbies. It has improved my own writing, introduced me to a variety of new realms and ideas, and helped me to synthesize cross-disciplinary information, all of which are valuable in conservation practice.

What is the most exciting about working on urban ecology issues in Los Angeles?

We are living in the midst of a great ecological awakening in Los Angeles. Our city has rich, varied (and sometimes disturbing) history, but we are moving into a new era of awareness about environmental issues and the importance of nature in our lives. This is a busy time for those of us in the city who have careers that revolve around science, nature, and biodiversity. It is exciting to see the energy and interest on the part of our local government, elected officials, not-for-profits, and neighborhood groups in focal projects such as the restoration of the Los Angeles River. As more and more Angelenos come to have a nature-focused existence in mind, it is something that we can certainly achieve in this city.

What research are you excited about? Tell us about your projects and how you see the scope of their success?

I’m excited about the research that we at The Nature Conservancy are conducting in partnership with the Urban Nature Research Center at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. We are devising a new methodology for mapping city habitats that we call our Biodiversity Analysis in Los Angeles (BAILA) project. This is a stakeholder-driven effort that involves the input of so many nature-involved groups in our city. Using information about the built environmental, biophysical factors, and demographics, we have developed an urban habitats map and are testing how well our habitat categories explain biodiversity in the city using citizen-science data on plants and animals in databases like iNaturalist. It is a new way of doing conservation planning, and will hope that both our method and our results are useful in informing planners and decision-makers in Los Angeles County and beyond for many years to come.

Check out our next blog to read about CWH's Staff Scientist, Ariane Jong.

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