Dr. Virginia Gorsevski is a Programme Officer in Biodiversity at the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).
She will be a featured panelist at the fifth annual SAIS GWL Conference, Securing a Sustainable Future: Women as Leaders in a Changing Climate during the Mindsets panel at 1:45pm.
Tell us a little bit about your career path.
I started off my career working in the climate protection division of the EPA and then moved to USAID where I worked on climate change-related issues in the energy office. I then decided to take a certificate course at the University of Maryland on Geographic Information Systems (GIS). This certificate program was eventually extended into a Masters program and then later a Ph.D., as I received a scholarship from NASA to study the impact of conflict on forests in a very biodiverse area of what is today South Sudan.
I first traveled to this part of Sudan following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. I was very interested in what remote sensing can teach us about the environment in places that are inaccessible due to war or lack of infrastructure. I was motivated to understand the technology in a way that could drive more efficient conservation policy.
Now I work for the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), mainly on issues related to biodiversity. One project I am working on right now is developing methods to help the GEF better assess the socio-economic impacts of protected areas on people.
What is one fact about biodiversity that you wish was more widely understood?
People need to understand that we are currently on the brink of the sixth mass extinction event and that for the first time ever, humans are the cause. While creating protected areas is one way to conserve key biodiversity, population growth and rising incomes are forces that will continue to stress the natural ecosystem. Ultimately, I think the only way we will reverse the destructive path we are currently on is to properly value the goods and services ecosystems provide, and upon which all of life depends. Transformative change must come with mainstreaming the value of biodiversity throughout the economy.
What are some of the most promising developments in conservation and species protection that give you reason for optimism?
We can use earth observation technology to learn what is taking place on the ground and hopefully spur action. When people are able to observe changes in the Earth over time and space, it makes it easier to understand the impacts of human activity and to use this information to inform decision makers. Even now, compared to when I was doing my Ph.D., there is much more open source data and software that is widely accessible and user friendly.
Do you have a favorite endangered animal that helps motivate you in your work?
I am partial to small mammals like Golden-headed lion tamarins which you can see at the National Zoo.
How did your SAIS education help shape the way you viewed complex problems like the global biodiversity crisis?
When I was at SAIS there was very little focus on environmental topics; however, two classes really got me interested in this field. The first was taught by Deborah Bleviss, which exposed me to the issue of energy needs and uses in developing countries. The second course was taught by Owen Lynch and called Environmental Issues in Developing Countries, which really helped shape my thinking and my career. Professor Lynch focused on the complexity of issues related to environment and development. I remember he taught us that whenever you write an essay for an exam, you should start with “it depends”. His point was that every situation is different and difficult. That class changed my life. There is no set rule.
Who are some female environmental leaders whom you admire?
In my next life, I want to be Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey. Their work and their lives are truly inspirational. I’m also encouraged by groups such as the anti-poaching unit called The Black Mambas in Southern Africa. This group of women is not only working to stop poachers, but also to educate schoolchildren about the value of wildlife to help motivate the next generation of people living on the frontlines.