Meet Our Staff: Dr. Ariana Sutton-Grier

The Nature Conservancy in Maryland and DC is pleased to welcome a new Director of Science, Dr. Ariana Sutton-Grier.

Dr. Sutton-Grier joins The Nature Conservancy after having recently completed a joint appointment as Research Faculty at the University of Maryland in the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and as Ecosystem Science Advisor for the National Ocean Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

She will continue her affiliation with the University of Maryland where she was recently promoted to Associate Research Professor.  She earned her Ph.D. in Ecology from Duke University in 2008, then completed post-doctoral fellowships at both the Smithsonian and NOAA.

We recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Sutton-Grier a few questions about her work, and the exciting new science leadership that she will bring to the chapter.

TNC: We are thrilled to have you join the Maryland/DC chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Dr. Sutton-Grier. What excites you most about coming to work for the Conservancy?

Dr. Ariana Sutton-Grier: I am very excited to be part of such a dedicated conservation-focused team.  And I am eager to explore how best to use my expertise to support the conservation work of TNC. 

I have always focused on doing science that had practical applications.  My doctoral research focused on how we could better restore wetlands in urban areas in order to better remove nitrogen pollution from the surrounding human communities.  My recent research has focused on providing science to support NOAA’s policies and coastal management decisions. Now I will have the opportunity for my research to help support the conservation priorities and goals of the MD/DC chapter and the Conservancy at large.  Working with my science team, we will focus on the science needed to help achieve Resilient Coasts, Resilient Forests, and Clean Water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Ariana1You just completed a joint appointment with the University of Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting as bridge between academia and government. In your opinion, how should science inform policy-making?

What I learned during my almost 7 years working with NOAA is how to do user-inspired science research. Many times, scientists ask interesting questions but those questions don’t help provide answers to policy and decision-makers or natural resource managers because the questions are not framed with end-users and application in mind.  Having been at NOAA working with policy and decision-makers, I determined which questions were most useful to move forward policies.  For example: how to incorporate the carbon benefits of coastal wetlands (“coastal wetland blue carbon”) into decisions and management and how to leverage the storm protection and erosion risk reduction benefits of coastal ecosystems to promote natural solutions for coastal resilience.

There are a couple of lessons I have learned about how to make my science research useful to policy, management, and decision-making.  First, listen to those end-users and figure out what information they need to make management or policy decisions.  Then design your research to answer the questions they have.  Then publish your findings in journals that aim to reach a broad community including academics, the business community, managers, and policy and decision-makers.  And publish research open access so that everyone can access it. 

Since I have embraced user-inspired research, I have been invited to a much broader set of conferences, I have had more media coverage of my research, and I have been told by a variety of decision-makers from the local, state, and national level that they are reading my research and finding it useful. So, there is a critical role science can play in informing policy, decision-making, and management, but science research needs to be designed and communicated with those end-users in mind from the very beginning.

On your personal website, you state that you are an “ecosystem ecologist broadly interested in how human environmental change is affecting ecosystem function and the ability of ecosystems to provide the services on which we depend.” What do you mean by ecosystems providing services to people?

Every person on the planet is completely dependent on healthy ecosystems for survival, but most people don’t recognize this connection. But we are all dependent on the benefits provided by nature (also called ecosystem services) for food, clean and adequate water, and raw materials for building our communities.  These are some of the most obvious ecosystem services on which we depend.

The research community studying ecosystem services over the past several decades has determined there are LOTS of additional benefits that people get from ecosystems including the role ecosystems play in mitigating climate change, the storm and erosion protection provided by coastal ecosystems, and the important educational and cultural benefits we get from ecosystems which provide places for us to recreate, vacation, do research, and form our personal identities.

Ariana2We can take our growing understanding of ecosystem services to help improve management of ecosystems. We can also improve policy and decision-making when we consider the impacts of decisions on ecosystem services so that we can fully understand the benefits and/or trade-offs of different scenarios or decisions.  We can also potentially develop new partners in conservation.  I have two examples of this.  First, my work on coastal blue carbon has focused on how we can use the climate mitigation benefits provided by coastal wetlands to develop more conservation opportunities via policies or environmental markets. 

One example of this is via carbon markets where communities that protect their coastal wetlands can be paid for the carbon that is being sequestered in those systems and also for the avoided emissions that are not occurring if the coastal wetlands were to be developed. There is a particularly good example of where this has been successful in the Mikoko Pamoja project in Kenya where carbon credits have enabled a community to not only protect and restore their mangroves, conserving all the co-benefits these ecosystems provide, but the community has also been able to afford to make investments in their schools and in piped water to the community because of the carbon payments.  You can read more about this example and 3 others here

A second example is my work on what I consider the “ultimate ecosystem service” which is human health and well-being.  There is growing scientific evidence that people need to be exposed to a diversity of natural environments and species in order to be healthy.  Nature exposure is good for psychological health promoting relaxation, sense of place, and reducing anxiety and stress.  Exposure to a diverse set of natural ecosystems also influences the human body’s own microbiota and helps the human immune system learn how to function properly so as not to be over-reactive to particles, such as pollen. 

So, exposure to diverse natural ecosystems can decrease risk of diseases such as asthma and allergies. At the moment we have a lot more questions than answers on the specifics of how this relationship works and what kinds of nature exposure are the most beneficial, etc.  But we can take this research, and it can help to develop additional partnerships for conservation with urban planners and land managers.  You can read more here.

This is the power of understanding these natural benefits ecosystems provide to people.  We can leverage this knowledge to build new partnerships in conservation with diverse players such as urban planners, medical researchers and professionals, and local communities.  Also, we can apply this knowledge to make better policies and decisions.  And in some cases, we may be able to use this information to generate additional revenue for conservation and restoration (such as the case of payments for coastal blue carbon conservation from carbon markets).

Speaking of nature and people, I understand that you are a Ph.D. Ecologist – yet have published articles on the social sciences. How can the social sciences play a role in environmental conservation?

I would say I have published with social scientists, as well as with policy experts.  My research has become very multi-disciplinary because to address the major environmental and societal challenges facing the world, including climate change, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, and invasive species, solutions are not simple and involve dealing with the human dimensions of all these problems.  So, I firmly believe that solutions to these problems must be multi-disciplinary. 

I have very much enjoyed working with social scientists who better understand the social dimensions to environmental problems. These include economic market drivers and the human behavior drivers. It is incredibly important that we tackle environmental challenges recognizing the social, economic, and political factors as well as the natural resource factors that all are part of finding solutions that will be societally-acceptable and implementable.

Ariana3Over the years, you have participated in, and led, several community events though your alma mater, the Natural History Museum, PBS, and others. How important is it to connect the general public, especially youth, to science?

I am always excited when I get the opportunity to engage with the public because I get to share my passion for science and innovative science and policy conservation opportunities. 

And I think it is really important that people see the human side of scientists and get to know someone who is a scientist so that science doesn’t seem so far removed from each person’s life.  I also work to break-down some of the stereotypes about scientists always having crazy hair and wearing a lab coat.  Science is so much more than that and I like to share my own experiences and stories with others to give a personal face to what being a scientist is like.

When I communicate with the public, regardless of age, I focus on helping people understand how science connects with their daily lives (like how they fit into the carbon cycle, for example), and how environmental challenges are also societal challenges with important implications for current and future generations. 

I also try to communicate how what I am learning in my research has applications to actions that can be taken.  For example, when I talk about coastal wetland blue carbon, one suggestion I have is that people can volunteer to participate in coastal wetland restoration projects to generate more natural climate mitigation.  When I talk about connections between nature exposure and human health, actions that can be taken include encouraging kids (and adults) to spend time outside in different environments.  Or people can get involved in local urban planning efforts and advocate for more parks and open space.  And there are sometimes local opportunities to do citizen science where people can participate in research efforts. This can be a great way to get kids involved in science.

At The Nature Conservancy, we like to play a game called “two truths and a lie” when getting to know one another. Which of the following are true about you?

A.    You have taken over 1,200 hours of dance classes.
B.    You love to bake.
C.    You once appeared on Jeopardy!

I have indeed taken over 1,200 hours of dance classes, including ballet, jazz, tap, modern, African dance, country western, lindy hop, and both smooth and latin ballroom, and now my favorite exercise class is Zumba! I also love to bake, and I will bake just about anything: bread, cinnamon rolls, cakes, crisps, puff pancakes, etc.

Learn more about how Ariana developed her science communication skills in #MySciComm: Ariana Sutton-Grier’s Confessions of a Not- Quite-Broadway Scientist.  The Ecological Society of America's #MySciComm questions explore the personal and professional journeys of science communicators, including the joys, struggles, and helpful resources that surfaced along their way. 


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