Behind The Science: A Nerd For Nature

Holly Copeland is the first to admit that she giggles at a good Star Trek joke and can relate to the television show The Big Bang Theory. A self-alleged computer geek, Holly’s workday has her at the helm of complex technology that is way over most of our heads—think 3D models, spatial statistics and technical mapping software.

Eyes glazing over? Don’t tune out quite yet—Holly’s advanced use of technology is protecting the places you and I care about by giving us a unique glimpse into the future.
“We can now see problems before it’s too late, rather than picking up our heads 50 years from now and saying, ‘oh, no, look what we’ve done.’”

Holly Copeland


What’s the nerdiest thing you’ve done recently?

Holly Copeland:

That’s easy. For the past month I’ve been getting up at five in the morning to take an online graduate-level class called “Quantitative Spatial Statistics.” I sit there in the dark sipping my coffee and learning more about spatial statistics. I love it!


Were you, um, always such a nerd?

Holly Copeland:

I remember hanging out in the computer lab in 5th grade with all the nerdy guys at lunch. I loved writing little programs for the “new” Apple IIE computers and playing programming games like Rocky’s Boots.

It got me on the outs with the popular crowd, which was a bit tough, but I enjoyed computers so much that I decided to hang out with those nerdy guys anyway.


How do you explain what you do to your mom?

Holly Copeland:

Put simply, I use computers to look at the "Big Picture," meaning that I analyze how we’re leaving a footprint on nature.

My focus lately is on energy development in the West. I can use technology, for instance, to map out wildlife migration corridors and other important natural areas and then forecast future development impacts on the landscape, like wells, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure. These models can then be presented to decision-makers so that we can see into our future if things continue on the current path.


Sounds like a good sci-fi movie.

Holly Copeland:

I don’t know about that, but it’s true that computers allow us to analyze vast amounts of data that we couldn’t 20 years ago. We can now see problems before it’s too late, rather than picking up our heads 50 years from now and saying, ‘oh, no, look what we’ve done.'

Energy is one of the most important issues conservation can tackle. Most of us use electricity to light our houses and gas to drive our cars, and my work will hopefully allow us to find ways to do that more sustainably.


So ‘live long and prosper’?

Holly Copeland:

Tich tor ang tesmur. That’s the idea.

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About Holly Copeland

Holly is a spatial ecologist for the Conservancy’s Conservation Lands program and the Wyoming Chapter, conducting threat assessments, mitigation planning, and modeling for future energy development scenarios.

She holds a master’s in geography from the University of Wyoming and has published articles in journals such as PLOSOne, Bioscience, and the Journal of Conservation Planning. Holly has several chapters in the book Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America, set to be released in January 2011.


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