For wildlife conservation major Deirdre Conroy, meaningful environmental work demands equal consideration of the social factors that inform and shape conservation efforts.

“Now, more than ever, conservationists need to be fluent in and sensitive to human issues associated with the habitats and species we strive to protect,” Conroy said. “For me, conservation boils down to addressing human needs — involving resource use, access to natural spaces, climate safety, and coexistence with wildlife, among other things — in a sustainable and ecologically sound way.”

Conroy’s deep commitment to conservation and her rich and diverse educational experiences led to her selection as the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s 2019 Outstanding Senior.

“Every once in a while, a student comes looking for advice, and you immediately know they are destined to do great things,” said William Hopkins, professor of wildlife and director of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. “Deirdre is one of those students.”

One area where Conroy has excelled is her involvement in research projects that have taken her from the forests of Virginia to the jungles of Belize. As an honors scholar in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Conroy conducted her thesis research on bat species diversity in the Ellett Valley near Blacksburg through the college’s Conservation Management Institute.

A 2018 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Fralin Life Science Institute enabled her to travel to Belize to study the impact of sustainable logging techniques on jaguar populations.

“Deirdre was an excellent field researcher,” said Professor Marcella Kelly, who supervised Conroy’s work in Belize. “But more than that, she really engaged with the local Belizean hosts. She asked great questions and always listened attentively to their answers. It was clear that Deirdre cares not only about wildlife but also about the people whose lives are impacted by the surrounding wildlands and the wildlife those lands support.”

Hopkins echoed that Conroy gives careful consideration to the human dimensions of conservation work.

“One of the things that makes Deirdre stand out is her compassion for people," he said. "She sees social inequalities and conservation problems through a combined lens and recognizes tight linkages between the two that many conservation practitioners fail to embrace.”

Reflecting that commitment, Conroy was one of 50 students nationwide awarded a 2018 Udall Undergraduate Scholarship, given to students who demonstrate exceptional leadership and academic potential as well as a commitment to environmental concerns and Native issues. Conroy attended the August 2018 scholarship orientation in Tucson, Arizona, where she met the other scholars and participated in a multiday case study on water rights allocations. She then participated in the Grand Canyon Semester program based out of Northern Arizona University, an experience that significantly informed and influenced her career ambitions.

“We traveled all over the Southwest,” Conroy explained, “meeting with activists, land managers, environmentalists, and Native peoples in order to learn about ecological and Native issues. On one especially meaningful field excursion, we attended the Havasupai Intertribal Gathering at Red Butte, where we learned about the serious threats posed by uranium mining on the Colorado Plateau.”

“I think the entire semester experience really broke all of us open and helped us recognize our place in the world as young people with the potential to make needed social and political change happen in our lifetimes,” she added.

Conroy, who grew up in Arlington, Virginia, said that her passion for conserving outdoor spaces started at a young age.

“Natural spaces were always the places I’d go when things were conflicted,” she recalled. “Going to a park or a natural preserve offered important relief, and later I realized how grateful I was to have had those places. When I came to college, I wanted to learn how to protect those spaces so that other people could access and appreciate them.”

Conroy’s vast field experiences also include conducting a project on ectoparasites of bats in Grand Canyon National Park and volunteering with a restoration project in Olympic National Park after the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.

While she has enjoyed many opportunities to participate in research projects at Virginia Tech, she hopes to make environmental justice a central focus of her career going forward.

“What I’ve realized through my experiences is that it’s the socio-environmental issues that I care most deeply about,” Conroy explained. “I hope to be able to use my literacy with scientific concepts and research techniques to address human issues and inform policy and management. I can see myself working on climate justice, promoting traditional ecological knowledge and diversity in conservation thinking and applications, or facilitating conflict resolution over human-wildlife conflict and environmental issues.”

Conroy said that graduate school is a likely destination for her within the next few years. She first plans to gain experience working with nonprofits that focus on environmental and/or social justice issues.

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