MacArthur Genius Fellow Donates $100,000 to ASRI

We are thrilled to announce a major gift to ASRI: MacArthur Foundation Fellow Sarah “Sally” Otto is donating $100,000 from her MacArthur “Genius Grant” to support our community-based conservation work.

Professor Sarah Otto. Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.

Professor Sarah Otto. Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.

Sometimes the most exciting news can come from the most unexpected places. It was a quiet day in the Health In Harmony office, all of us engrossed in our own tasks, when suddenly Executive Director Michelle Bussard whooped and clapped.  She had just gotten an e-mail from an unknown woman named Sarah Otto – who wanted to give us $100,000 from her MacArthur “Genius Grant”. (Little did we know this was very similar to how she first found out about receiving the grant herself!)

That was how we were introduced to Professor Sarah “Sally” Otto, an evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Vancouver. Sally was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 2011 for her work on some of the biggest questions of population genetics and evolution.  Each year, the MacArthur Foundation choses an elite group of 20-30 fellows who show “exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect of still more in the future,” and awards them $625,000 over five years to use as they please. Sally has chosen to use her award to support conservation causes dear to her heart: she donated the first installment to protect threatened Canadian grasslands, and the second to the UBC training program connecting bright young research talent to organizations working on conservation and biodiversity preservation.

We are honored to be the recipients of the third installment of her MacArthur genius grant funding. To learn more about what inspired her extremely generous gift, Michelle and I hopped on the phone with her to talk:

KH: Hi Sally! We’re so happy to get to talk to you today. First things first: could you tell us a little more about your work and the MacArthur fellowship?

SO: Of course! I’m an evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia Vancouver. I study why organisms evolved to be the way they are and why certain species survive while others go extinct. More specifically, I use modeling to categorize what traits make a species more resilient.

Receiving the MacArthur fellowship was a complete surprise. They keep the nomination and decision making process very private, so I had no idea I was being considered. I found out when I got an e-mail from the foundation while I was out of town, asking me to give them a call. I almost deleted the email, because I thought it was junkmail! Learning that I received this fellowship was a surreal experience.

MB: What led you to dedicate your award to conservation and biodiversity preservation? How does your own work fit in with the urgency of what you see happening globally?

SO: Well, it doesn’t, really! That is the schizophrenia of my life: I’m studying patterns and processes that shape biodiversity over the long-term, but the Earth’s conservation problems are immediate. The environment is changing so rapidly: wherever I turn, I see the landscape changing and threatening our biodiversity. Receiving the MacArthur grant was an opportunity to step back and think, “What can I do? How can I help make the world a better place?”

"Receiving the MacArthur grant was an opportunity to step back and think, “What can I do? How can I help make the world a better place?"

That is why I used the first two installments of my fellowship award to support local conservation efforts in Canada. So far, I have been able to help secure key habitat in the Okanagan grasslands, where many critically endangered species live, and funded an internship program at UBC to connect biodiversity researchers with organizations in need of their expertise. It’s a very special program – you can hear more about it from Andrew MacDonald! (Ed. note: Andrew is a repeat ASRI conservation volunteer, who recently returned to ASRI thanks to funding from this program!) Health In Harmony is the first organization I’ve supported outside of Canada.

KH: We’re honored! How did you hear about us?

SO: I first heard about Health In Harmony from my colleague Amy Zanne, who had worked with Cam Webb and described the innovative way that ASRI provided health care in exchange for environmental care.  I had already known Cam from his research papers on ecosystems, and I was intrigued by the ASRI project.  Patients can chose how to give back for medical and dental care received by planting trees, learning to compost, or becoming a Forest Guardian. I thought the idea of tying human health and the environment together was innovative and critical for both.

More recently, one of our graduate students, Andrew MacDonald, spoke to me about his internship in February at ASRI.  I learned about the challenges of a recent fire at the Laman Satong reforestation site and about how the team is now trying to figure out which tree species would be most likely to establish and survive future fires.

"Changing people's lifestyles in a way that promotes the conservation of biodiversity is not easy. [...] ASRI works, and it works because it allows people to see directly the interconnections between their lives and their environment."

KH: What made you decide you wanted to support our work?

 SO: Changing people’s lifestyles in a way that promotes the conservation of biodiversity is not easy.  We have an inherent belief in the ability of nature to bounce back, even though it often cannot.  For example, when we cut down rainforests, the local climate and species community changes, and it is often hard for the rainforest to return. Also, we tend to make decisions focusing on the short term, discounting long-term effects, even when they may be disastrous to our children.  For example, we’ve depleted many fish stocks through overfishing, such as Atlantic cod, losing jobs for future generations.

Even when we learn these lessons, though, it is very hard for people to make fundamental changes to their lives in a way that preserves the environment.  That’s why I think ASRI is so innovative.

ASRI works, and it works because it allows people to see directly the interconnections between their lives and their environment.  They learn that replanting trees is not easy – that it is actually easier to not cut them down in the first place.  They learn that composting is effective and cheaper than buying fertilizers.  And they learn these lessons while getting the health care they need.  I think that it is this direct feedback – between health and the environment – that allows people to make fundamental change.  Gifting my MacArthur funds is a way for me to highlight ASRI’s successful approach to conservation.

KH: It’s like Cam Webb said in the aftermath of the fire: people came to him and said they understand now why it is so important to protect the rainforest that is still intact, because the reforestation experience and setbacks have taught them just how hard it is to restore the forest once it’s gone.

SO: Exactly. I learned from Cam that the rainforest essentially never burns – the damp microclimate protects it from fire.  But secondary growth forests do burn.  So this was another lesson about the interconnections between the environment and people’s livelihoods:  saving the rainforest is also insurance against the devastation of a fire.

MB: What is your wish for our organization? What would you like to see your gift create?

SO: My hope is that you will be copied. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and my wish for ASRI is that is copied in communities throughout the world. Community-based initiatives that intertwine human and environmental health is one of the most powerful ways to effect real change. I hope that, with guidance from Health In Harmony, many other communities will gain a program as successful as ASRI.

KH & MB: Thank you for talking with us, Sally!

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About Kelsey Hartman | View all posts by Kelsey Hartman

Kelsey is the Communications and Marketing Associate at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR.