Behind the Science with New Mexico's Patrick McCarthy

We’ve all seen it on film and TV: A white-coated scientist, alone in the lab, peers into a microscope with furrowed brow for days (or years) at a time. As the foundation of our science-based organization, Conservancy scientists don’t always fit this mold. Take Patrick McCarthy for example.

With degrees in zoology and anthropology, a master’s in ecology, and field assignments as far away as Africa, McCarthy’s background is as varied as the subjects he has studied and seen.

At the Conservancy, he splits his time between two roles. In one, he manages a team of conservation scientists and field practitioners for the New Mexico chapter.

In the other, he serves as director of the Conservancy’s Southwest Climate Change Initiative and works with managers and scientists from government agencies, NGOs and academic institutions to design and implement climate change adaptation strategies for the southwestern U.S. Or said another way, he spends time focusing on the nitty-gritty side of climate change and figuring out what we can do on the ground to effect change.

Prior to his current roles, McCarthy helped launch the Conservancy’s Zambezi River program. “I learned a lot about the science and politics of river restoration during my time in Africa, and I’m now trying to use what I learned here in New Mexico, which shares some of the same challenges.” spoke with McCarthy about how he got started in conservation, scary moments in the forest, and why hot peppers and salt can make anything taste good.
"The work of conservation happens in an ever-changing environment..."

Patrick McCarthy
Director of Conservation Programs for the New Mexico chapter and also leads the organization's Southwest Climate Change Initiative

What led you to a career in science? Did you have some early inspiration?


I grew up on a 40-acre farm outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I had access to both a great academic community from the university—a cosmopolitan place with really smart scientists—and a huge backyard where I could chase snakes and catch frogs. I was always outside and had a real affinity for the natural world. As I got older and went to college, this affinity only strengthened as I worked with inspiring professors and cutting-edge biologists.

What do you love most about your job?


What really stands out is having the freedom and the need to learn new things every day and then integrating and applying what I've learned to conservation challenges we face. The work of conservation happens in an ever-changing environment, and it’s rewarding to figure out how the Conservancy can be the most effective using limited resources to achieve our mission.

What was one of your most scary moments in the field?


While I was in Africa on assignment, I finished up my services in what was then Zaire and traveled to Eastern Congo where I visited the Ruwenzori Mountains and then went to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Our group was on its way up a mountainside—the gorillas sometimes hang out in the tea plantations along the forest edge—and we came across these huge piles of hot, steaming dung.

We were thinking, “What the heck is this?” and the guide told us urgently that these are scat piles from forest elephants, which are very aggressive. If they see you, you are already in trouble. We immediately turned around and made a hasty retreat.

What is one of the most unusual things you had to do while on the job?


I was living in a Congolese village. People there get most of their protein from insects and particularly termites. The termites come out of the ground by the millions during a full moon.

The villagers had an ingenious way to harvest these insects. They created screens out of palm leaves to block out the moon and then built fires that would draw the termites to them with the light. The insects would bump against the screens and get gathered up. People would eat them alive—“on the wing”—or save them in huge baskets and cook them later with palm oil, salt and hot peppers. I ate them often and found them pretty tasty. They taste a lot like bacon!

Sounds like an acquired taste for sure! Before we go, I'm curious to know what is the last thing you Googled on the job?


I looked up "Rocky Mountain Climate Organization," a regional group that is superb at gathering and disseminating materials.

Last updated Fall 2010

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