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Exposure to fieldwork introduces prospective students, parents to range of jobs.
Club founders hope to expand Nature@ASU to other universities.
March 28, 2016

Conservation biology students launch Nature@ASU club to show others the path to range of career options out in the field

Inspecting the teeth of a drugged Siberian tiger. Darting a tracking device in a whale from the deck of a pitching boat. Waking up in a tent to sunrise over the Tibetan steppe.

There are careers where you can do all these things, and be paid for it.

A group of conservation biology students at Arizona State University want to shout this to the high heavens. To that end, they are starting a club to focus on professional development for conservation biologists.

Nature@ASU, slated to officially launch next fall, will have five components: a mentorship program; an internship finder; a job-mining component; high school outreach; and a website.

“We all care about protecting our planet,” said Jessica Givens, Nature@ASU co-founder along with John Lebens.

Givens’ experience is a classic example of what she wants to change. In high school she always liked animals and biology classes. When she arrived at ASU, she was pre-med student. But when classes like biochemistry loomed, she thought, “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

She had no idea what she wanted to do. What she really wanted to do was be a force for change in the natural world. “I have this big feely thing where I want to protect the world,” she said.

A meeting with conservation biologist Andrew Smith, President's Professor and Parents' Association Professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Smith is also a distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, a guest professor in the College of Life Sciences/Center for Landscape Ecology and Sustainability Science at Beijing Normal University, and advisory board member for the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability., where he showed her his work and research, clinched the deal. She discovered what she wanted to do with her life.

“A lot of people are interested in conservation biology, but they don’t hear about it until they’re juniors or seniors,” Lebens said.

“We need to show students this is a viable (career) option,” Givens said.

She switched her major to a bachelor's in conservation biology and ecology, became president of the Central Arizona Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology — a student-run, conservation-biology organization centered at ASU — and quadrupled its membership in less than a year. The chapter jumped into fieldwork, doing a jackrabbit survey, spotlighting black-footed ferret, and trapping prairie dogs.

“I’ve taken a lot of people out and they’re like, ‘This is my first sleeping bag,’” Givens said. “That’s what makes students great conservationists: being out there.”

A group of bio students pose at Saguaro National Park
A group of volunteers, including ASU students, completed a recent cactus survey at Saguaro National Park outside Tucson. Photo courtesy: ASU alum Carolyn Harper


About 167 students are studying conservation biology at ASU, mostly juniors and seniors. The subject ranges across the university: conservation biology and sustainability in Tempe; environmental science at the West campus; and applied biosciences at the Polytechnic campus.

Givens and Lebens recruited 16 undergrads to help with the launch of Nature@ASU. They want to elevate the club to the point where organizations like the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Nature Conservancy call for project volunteers or internship candidates.

Ecosystem scientist Sharon Hall, associate professor in the School of Life SciencesHall is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and associate director of education and diversity in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes., will be Nature@ASU’s faculty adviser.

Hall said students going into the field need more of a hand than in other careers. Conservation biology is not like a law degree, where grads can expect to clerk after graduation.

“There’s a lot of pathways you can choose from, but they’re not very clear,” Hall said, citing the need to show a range of jobs.

There are two other groups who need education about the field. Parents are one. They may feel that a college degree is limited to business or law, and not understand that a good career can be had under mosquito netting as well as wood paneling. That’s why the outreach component of Nature@ASU is important.

“Make the pathways to conservation science very clear, and take it to parents and to high schools,” Hall said.

The other is kids that haven’t spent any time in nature and don’t know that they can do what they see on Animal Planet for a living.

“You have to have some exposure to nature to know what to expect,” Hall said. “It can be scary for kids who don’t have that background. They’re faced with how do I get a job? How do I make a living?”

Givens envisions Nature@ASU moving to other universities.  “What we need most is mentors,” she said. “Hopefully we get the stars to align.”

“What they need is to find and support each other,” Hall said. “If you’re interested in nature, we’ll help you choose. ... It’ll be student-driven. That’s the key thing.”


Top photo by Andreas Krappweis/

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Expanding the knowledge economy

ASU, Ghanaian university join forces to educate growing skilled workforce.
MasterCard Foundation, ASU, KNUST to educate Ghanaians for knowledge economy.
March 29, 2016

ASU, MasterCard Foundation join forces with Ghanaian university to train leaders of rapidly growing West African nation

Arizona State University is partnering with a premier university in Ghana to equip the next generation of business and engineering leaders to solve problems and help guide the West African nation’s future, funded by a $22 million grant from the MasterCard Foundation.

The new program, Strengthening Institutional Linkages, will team ASU with Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, to award 150 master’s degrees.

The trans-Atlantic collaboration aims to produce advanced-degree graduates in fields that are vital to the growing economy in Ghana, the world’s leading source of cocoa and a major producer of oil, gas, gold and diamonds.

Starting in January 2017, the partnership will also bring 42 faculty members from Kwame Nkrumah to ASU to help support MasterCard Foundation Scholars. The relationship will also create opportunities for broader student and faculty exchange and joint research.

“We are committed to educating master learners who will not just fill jobs in the workforce of the future but lead it, in Arizona and around the world,” said Dr. Michael M. Crow, ASU president. “The partnership with KNUST strengthens our global reach, grows our capacity to deliver quality higher education and creates enormous possibilities for both universities as we learn from each other.”

Degrees will initially be focused on mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, global logistics and supply chain management, helping address skills gaps in Ghana as its economy grows.

“We are hoping for joint proposals, research development and exchange of students and faculty, as well as joint publications,” said William Otoo Ellis, vice chancellor of KNUST, in a Skype interview this week. “It will enrich both institutions.”

Over the six years of the grant, starting in fall 2017, Ghanaian students at KNUST will apply to the program during their junior year. ASU will select 150 to complete their fourth year of undergraduate work at ASU and then spend a year in an accelerated master’s program.

The undergraduate degrees will be conferred by KNUST, and the master’s degrees will be from ASU.

Some graduates will become faculty members, Ellis said, while others will go into industry, particularly the energy sector.

“Science and technology are the drivers of economies,” he said, “in every country.”

Local industries need more skilled workers, particularly in mechanical engineering and business procurement, he added.

When the Olam cocoa-processing factory in Kumasi, Ghana, began operations seven years ago, 90 percent of the workers had to be recruited from elsewhere, said Joseph Darko, logistics manager.

“Sustainability is very important to us,” Darko said, “and we don’t want to be bringing in people from abroad.”

ASU’s prior connections to KNUST include the work of Gabriel Takyi, a senior lecturer and director of the energy center at KNUST, who spent time at ASU’s Polytechnic campus working on development of a photovoltaic reliability lab in Ghana.

In the new ASU-KNUST partnership, the MasterCard Foundation is contributing nearly $22 million toward costs that include tuition, travel and technology.

The graduate program marks an expansion of ASU’s global connections with support from the MasterCard Foundation. ASU already supports 120 undergraduate students from Africa through the existing MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. An important element of the scholarship is its emphasis on giving back. Recipients engage in leadership development programming and community service throughout their academic journey as they prepare to contribute to their home country and communities upon graduation.

Students in the ASU-KNUST accelerated degree program will also have the opportunity to do a year of service back at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, according to Aryn Baxter, program director for the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at ASU.

“It’s designed around cultivating leadership skills,” Baxter said, “and encouraging each individual to develop a vision for how they want to give back.”

While current MasterCard Foundation Scholars come from 20 African countries, the new initiative will focus on Ghana, where there is an existing pipeline of qualified students and an economy that’s ready for highly skilled graduates.

“There are economic opportunities in these fields,” Baxter said, “and we see a potential for the graduates to really make an impact.”

Ghana, with a population of 27 million and a democratic political system, has one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies because it is politically stable and has an abundance of natural resources. The country expects to see a shift from agricultural employment to services and industry, and spends about a quarter of its gross domestic product on primary and secondary education. However, there is a gap in higher education, and the country needs more people with advanced degrees.

"Higher-education institutions in Africa are positioned to make significant contributions to the communities they serve and will benefit from new kinds of partnerships with international universities,” said Peter Materu, director of Education and Learning at the MasterCard Foundation. “As demand for access to tertiary education continues to grow across the African continent, ASU’s experience delivering access and excellence at scale creates an exciting opportunity for collaboration and learning.”

The Strengthening Institutional Linkages program will be housed in the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU. The three principal investigators of the project are Baxter; Ajay Vinze, professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business; and Jacqueline Smith, assistant vice president and executive director of university initiatives.

Above photo by Madit Yel, MasterCard Foundation Scholars