FES prof. wins ‘genius grant’

From the tropical forests of Borneo to the mountain of Science Hill, Yale has a new reason to be proud of its faculty.

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies professor Lisa Curran was awarded a five-year John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship — known colloquially as a “genius grant.” One of 25 recipients, Curran will receive $500,000, which she may use as she wishes, as the foundation does not require any result or specific use of the funding.

The first Environment School faculty member to receive the award, Curran, a professor of tropical ecology and the director of Yale’s Tropical Resources Institute, uses satellite technology to document land-use changes and alterations in tropical forests, specifically on the Indonesian portion of Borneo, a Southeast Asian island.

But Curran’s research extends beyond the science of forest ecology. Her group studies the effects of changing land use on climate, local livelihoods and development — covering topics from biodiversity to indigenous peoples.

“We do the science of it, and then we try to understand the economic and social drivers,” Curran said. “Why are they doing this, and who is responsible?”

Curran’s peers say the result is research making a strong mark on her field.

“She just got tenure and her scholarship is world-class, but she is also profoundly engaged in helping to solve real-world problems,” Environment School Dean Gus Speth said. “She has been deeply engaged as a critic of the mismanagement of the forests of Southeast Asia, sometimes at great personal risk.”

For a time, Curran switched her research to the Amazon because working in Borneo became too dangerous due to political instability in the region. Just as her scholarship has crossed continents, her academic approach also bridges two fields of study.

“It is outstanding because she is one of the few that can cross the biophysical and cultural domains and make sense of it,” Environment School professor William Burch Jr. said. “I think that is what is distinctive, unique and extremely valuable in her work.”

Curran’s interest in combining scientific and social factors began the year between her sophomore and junior years of college at Harvard, where she completed her undergraduate thesis while spending a year in Nepal researching forests and monkeys and exploring the option of becoming a mountaineer.

During this time, Curran also shifted her focus from strict science after contrasting her knowledge of deforestation in Nepal with seeing Nepalese women she lived with cutting firewood at 4 a.m. After weighing both sides, she returned to the United States thinking she would like to do international development work, but she found a lack of quantitative information in the field.

After college, she signed on to conduct research in Borneo for a Harvard professor. Though it was only a one- to two-year commitment, she spent most of the next eight years in the forest, researching its ecology and living in logging concessions to understand social motives and incentives and how timber interests can exploit local areas. Curran wanted to be a “card-carrying member of the sciences” but work on applied problems, she said.

These days, Curran spends more of her time at Yale. Eventually, she envisions building a cadre of Indonesian researchers and nongovernmental-organization workers to address the challenges in Borneo.

The newest Yale faculty member to receive the MacArthur Fellowship is still unsure about how to use the funding.

“I do need to really take some time walking around the woods to think about this,” Curran said.

For now she will use the woods of the Northeast. But this November, she returns to Borneo.

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