Fall 2023 Issue

An Ecosystem All Their Own

The Institute for Integrative Conservation connects W&M with the world, and vice versa

By Ben Kennedy '05

An anonymous gift established the Institute for Integrative Conservation in 2020, to the tune of $19.3 million. The nascent program aimed to become the “nation’s premier cross-disciplinary institute” in its field. It was no small charge. W&M biologists, geologists and chemists joined with anthropologists, sociologists, entrepreneurs and librarians — to name a few — to give the next generation of conservation leaders a broad academic home with unrivaled educational experiences. This past spring, that next generation received their degrees.

“Often we get asked, ‘Why W&M?’,” says IIC Executive Director Robert Rose. “‘Why was it the right place to launch IIC?’ A big part is our amazing students; we have students who want to engage with making the world a better place.”

Rose describes the IIC as collaborative and solutions-focused — helping conservation take the next step forward. It’s a 360-degree approach that appeals to W&M’s motivated students, he says.

“We are an educational organization and we are a conservation enabler,” he adds. “Our approach is to identify an external network of partners — conservation NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], federal and state agencies, tribal communities, other universities and private organizations — to bring together students and faculty that can address conservation challenges that come from those partners.”


The integrative conservation major requires students to apply diverse knowledge, complete coursework in innovation and entrepreneurship, and do applied research on a conservation issue through the Institute’s Conservation Research Program, led by IIC Research Program Manager Erica Garroutte. For new graduate Katie Clark ’23, this meant collaborating with the Virginia Department of Forestry and its partners to preserve the commonwealth’s forests.

“My experience with the IIC’s yearlong Conservation Research Project illustrated the importance of viewing conservation solutions from several angles,” she says. “In this scenario, the success of forestland conservation directly depended on the needs and abilities of private landowners, which added levels of consideration to the baseline ‘save the trees’ mentality.”

With a double major in data science and integrative conservation, Clark and her project illustrate the IIC’s unique approach: Sustainable conservation solutions cannot begin and end with ecological concerns alone. They must take into consideration human impacts — both economic and cultural, upstream and downstream. And the only way to do that is to get out “into the field.”

“Applied research is always valuable,” says fellow IIC graduate Emilio Luz-Ricca ’23, who tests machine learning models in difficult and complex new domains, such as wildlife monitoring. “Seeing the whole picture and integrating a wide variety of perspectives helps draw the research toward practice.”

He was first author on a 2022 paper published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, in which his team connected with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on surveying sandhill crane populations by analyzing thermal aerial images. The IIC helped convene a broad coalition of partners that turned a purely machine-learning solution into what he calls “something truly collaborative and with an eye toward applications beyond this single survey.”

“I’m honored to have been involved with the IIC right at the beginning,” says Luz-Ricca, now a student in the applied artificial intelligence Ph.D. program at Cambridge University. “It’s such a special place — lovely people, fascinating research and a unique little space on campus,” he adds, referring to the IIC’s current home on North Boundary Street.

For Tara Vasanth ’23, her passion for conservation started with summers at the Dallas Zoo. “I became enthralled by just how diverse and colorful our planet is,” she says, “and how we have the agency to protect it.” Vasanth, cited by Institute staff as “one of the earliest and most consistent student supporters of the IIC,” served as president of its student leadership council.

“It’s serendipitous that the IIC and I began our journey at W&M around the same time — it’s made such a deep impact on the university and me,” says Vasanth, who is now studying architecture at Yale University. “I am incredibly grateful to be part of an institution that is doing such meaningful and critical work, and I know that the memories I made and the things I learned here will stay with me long after I graduate.”

The inaugural cohort of seven graduates also includes Grace Dho ’23, who connected with a Virginia Beach seafood company on oyster aquaculture; Bella Ortiz-Miller ’23, who helped develop an app to prevent bird-window collisions; Jordan Bryant ’23, who studied community-led restoration in Mexico; and Martha Ross ’23, who focused on grassland restoration on the Upper Missouri River. Many are headed to conservation work in their professional careers; others are moving on to graduate school. 

“I really see the IIC becoming a research powerhouse at W&M,” says Luz-Ricca, “and it was infinitely cool having some small part in getting that started!”

BIO-RICH FLORA: Jordan Bryant ’23 and Bibiana Mirones ’22 worked alongside the Biological Monitoring Group of Milpa Alta, Mexico, to support restoration and conservation efforts by developing a plant guide the community will use to evaluate their efforts. Photo: Fernando Galeana Rodriquez


Just because the first crop of graduates is out the door doesn’t mean the IIC sat empty all summer. The IIC’s Conservation Catalyst program debuted in 2023 as one of the Institute’s central pillars: bringing 10 experienced and emerging conservationists from around the world to William & Mary for a three-week leadership residency in June.

“Leaders need strong interpersonal skills and systems thinking to effectively convene and build networks, collaborate, innovate and learn,” says Anita Hagy Ferguson, IIC’s communications program manager. “These skills are not intuitive for everyone, but Catalyst really brings those to the surface.”

The Conservation Catalyst participants took part in entrepreneurial thinking, conflict management, funding and communications training workshops in the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center. They also went paddling on Lake Matoaka and did teambuilding exercises in the Sunken Garden. Their program connected with a cross section of campus resources, from the Raymond A. Mason School of Business to the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance, with many in between.

“Our partnerships are central to IIC’s operations,” says IIC’s capacity development program manager Alli Sabo, who designed and produced the program. “The Catalyst program deepened those relationships through the exchange of expertise between participants and IIC and strengthened our collective skills.”

Celebrating together: Faculty, staff, students and community members gather in front of the Institute for Integrative Conservation to celebrate the last day of classes for the 2023 graduates. Photo courtesy of Tara Vasanth.

Participants traveled to National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., and sessions were led by IIC conservation partners including retired U.S. National Park superintendent David Luschinger and Planet Women’s Kristine Zeigler.

“I am greatly honored to have been part of the IIC family,” says Daniel Kaaka of the Amboseli Ecosystem Trust in Kenya. “I will dearly miss the uniqueness of our individual characters, the love, happiness and at times the ‘silliness,’ but still within the confines of utmost respect for one’s individual space.”

It’s a part of the dialogue between the IIC and the rest of the world: First, W&M students partner with NGOs like the Amboseli Ecosystem Trust in the Conservation Research Program; then rising stars from many of the same NGOs come to campus to hone their leadership skills. The networks reinforce one another.

“We are connecting future leaders to a network of conservation changemakers working in diverse conservation landscapes,” says IIC Faculty Director John Swaddle, a longtime W&M professor of biology. “We are helping them to access the best of who they are as individuals and professionals and express that in their actions as conservation leaders, mentors and skilled collaborators.”

Embracing each student and Catalyst participant as multifaceted and multitalented contributors echoes the IIC’s approach to conservation: The best and most complete solutions can only come from embracing all sides of complex socioecological challenges.

“When we open ourselves up to new experiences and create a productive dialogue with others, our knowledge multiplies,” says Vasanth. “We’re much greater than the sum of our parts.”