‘TCD spirit’ guides Alumni Award winner on career path of conservation and community

Marcela Márquez-García (TCD 2016) takes a lead in Chilean conservation issues and network of women in conservation across Latin America

‘TCD spirit’ guides Alumni Award winner on career path of conservation and community

January 11, 2023

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2022 Latinamericanist newsletter.

From her home country of Chile, Marcela Márquez-García made the decision to attend the University of Florida with the express purpose of participating in the Tropical Conservation and Development (TCD) Program. It had been recommended to her by one of her professors because she was interested in the “human dimensions of conservation” – a defining feature of TCD that isn’t as prioritized in other environmental science programs.

During the application process, Marcela pored over the “TCD framework” paper written by the scholars who would become her mentors: Jon Dain, Karen Kainer, Marianne Schmink, among others. The 2006 publication, officially titled “A Graduate Education Framework for Tropical Conservation and Development” puts forth the idea that conservation education must be interdisciplinary, human-centered, and oriented on practice. The beacon for the TCD program would offer the same guiding light for Marcela herself.

By the time Marcela became Dr. Márquez-García (PhD Interdisciplinary Ecology, 2017) under the supervision of Center affiliate Dr. Susan Jacobson (Wildlife Ecology and Conservation), she had immersed herself in the TCD community and gained a thorough understanding of the “human dimensions of conservation” that had captivated her. “I was so involved in the TCD program,” she reflects. “I was so interested in that framework, how you should focus on a problem from the research standpoint and then learn the skills to work within that problem.”

Classes like Jon Dain’s “Facilitation Skills” and “Conflict Management” helped develop integral interpersonal communication strategies for successful collaboration with stakeholders from different backgrounds – an oft-overlooked facet of conservation work in practice. Dr. Susan Paulson’s “Power and Environment” provided crucial knowledge on the sociopolitical factors that impact environmental problem solving. Above all else, the TCD experience imparted on Marcela the importance of mentorship, practical application of skills, and an interconnected support network.

Inspired by these formative experiences, Dr. Márquez-García returned to Chile invigorated for her career. “I really wanted to apply the knowledge and skills that I had gained,” she shares. But her first job at a prestigious ecology institute didn’t turn out like she had hoped: the leadership there simply wasn’t interested in adopting the TCD model that she aspired to. “It was frustrating,” Dr. Márquez-García reflects. “I quit, eventually. I wanted to go somewhere where I could develop this TCD spirit of interdisciplinary research and human dimensions.”

One such opportunity arrived at the Wetlands Center of the Austral University of Chile, where she works today. The center’s director, it turned out, had also gotten a PhD at UF, and knew of TCD’s impact. In this role, Dr. Márquez-García was finally empowered to put her education into practice. Not only that, her new director encouraged her to apply to the Chilean Ministry of Environment’s search for experts who could develop implementation guidelines for a national wetlands conservation law that had passed in Chile in January 2020.

In order to be selected by the ministry, each interdisciplinary team had to submit application materials, including curricula vitae of each professional on the team. Dr. Márquez-García’s team narrowly won the selection – with one stand-out skillset that set her team apart from the others. “It turns out the thing that got us the project was my facilitation skills,” Dr. Márquez-García laughs. “That one part of my CV gave us the advantage over other teams.”

Through her work with the Ministry of Environment and other networks, Dr. Márquez-García has also had the privilege to contribute to the proposed ecological constitution for Chile. Her work involved collaborating with scientists and lawyers to outline policies regarding water conservation, a crucial issue for Chile’s privatized water system and the consequences of climate change. If an ecological constitution passed, Chile would be only the third country in the world to have legally ensconced the rights of nature and humans alike. “There’s a lot of general support for it in Chile,” Dr. Márquez-García shares. “But there are a lot of private interests, too.” In the end, the proposal was rejected, but Dr. Márquez-García is hopeful there will be an opportunity to try again. (In the meanwhile, her team compiled a book of topics recommended for an ecological constitution, a copy of which Dr. Márquez-García has donated to the TCD Program.)

A recurring theme in Dr. Márquez-García’s career is the necessity of translating ideas into action, part of TCD’s influence. The program’s emphasis on mentorship and community also features strongly in Dr. Márquez-García’s career. Before she had even graduated from UF, she co-founded the Latin American and Caribbean Women in Conservation Network with some peers in an effort to stay professionally connected in a field where women – particularly Latin American women – work in the margins.

Today, the network encompasses approximately two thousand members and offers a variety of professional development engagements across Latin America and the Caribbean. The network works to bring together a range of women in conservation (scientists, practitioners, policymakers, and community leaders) to address issues they face working in sustainability and environmental sciences, and build a collaborative network to empower and strengthen women’s impact in Latin American conservation.

Fittingly, the idea for the network was not Dr. Márquez-García’s alone. In fact, it was a collaboration supported by mentors like Center faculty Jon Dain and Karen Kainer, and Center affiliate Lyn Branch (Wildlife Ecology and Conservation). With the opportunity to host a workshop for a working group on women in science, the faculty turned over leadership to the students. “We developed the agenda for the workshop, and then it was time to decide who was going to facilitate,” Dr. Márquez-García laughs. “My friends and I, the students, we all looked at Jon. He just said, ‘You should do it.’”

The experience was seminal in Dr. Márquez-García’s early career. It offered her the chance to practice her new skills with the guidance of her professors, which gave her a confidence boost as well as experience to put on her CV. With positive feedback from both professors and participants, the workshop’s success launched not only the Latin American and Caribbean Women in Conservation Network but also Dr. Márquez-García’s career in facilitation.

In November 2022, Dr. Márquez-García returned to Gainesville to accept the Outstanding Young Alumni Award from the Center for Latin American Studies, in recognition of the significant accomplishments she has made in her field. During the visit, she participated in Jon Dain’s “Conflict Management” class – this time as a guest speaker. She offered anecdotes from her professional experience, gave a talk on her work thus far, and answered student questions.

While she was in Gainesville, Dr. Márquez-García received the good news that she was chosen for the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award for Chile, one of only two women in the country to receive the honor. But even with the recognition, she remains focused on her postdoc, which will soon culminate in the establishment of a “Transformation Lab” in Valdivia. “It’s a kind of workshop where we’ll bring together different stakeholders to think about the socioecological system in the city and what we can do to move it forward on sustainable pathways,” she shares. “Valdivia is growing, and we have many wetlands that are being filled, or polluted. So how can we address that, and make the city thrive without compromising the ecosystems that are super important for water management?”

Questions like this are at the center of Dr. Márquez-García’s interests: seeking environmental solutions with consideration to the human dimensions of conservation that brought her to the TCD program in the first place. Equipped with the priorities of interdisciplinary collaboration and practical skills to implement change, her career itself is an application and embodiment of “the TCD spirit,” channeled through her own vision, drive, and talents. ◆

You can read more from the Fall 2022 Latinamericanist below.

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