My name is Rachael, and I am a non-traditional graduate student. I am actually a mid-career professional who has decided to change careers to create work in a field I care passionately about.
I did my undergraduate work in Pennsylvania in animal science and biotechnology. I subsequently used my degree to work as an environmental educator, veterinary technician, and farm market manager before settling into a 12 year career in biomedical research. I took two years off to pursue a dream as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural highlands of Western Guatemala.
I have been a self-taught lifelong naturalist, and when I arrived at my destination almost 11,000 ft above sea level in Guatemala, I quickly realized how fragile and marginal the summit environment was. I also quickly realized how difficult and balanced a chore it is to support oneself in this locale. For one year, I worked as a field veterinarian, health extensionist, and development professional. I started a sheep genetics project that had promise to help lift about 45,000 people out of poverty while teaching them to better care for their fragile environment. I ended up working on this project for 9 years.
My post-Peace Corps US career moved me from tuberculosis and flu vaccine research to overseeing health of transgenic mice and rats, and then I became an animal welfare and research ethics specialist. This path led me to UConn’s door in March 2009, where I worked as the campus IACUC coordinator and vice-chair while I started my Master’s degree in Agricultural Resource Economics part-time. I quickly realized that the needs of the master’s degree program were intense, and were in conflict with the hours required to maintain my work position. In 2010, I made the scary and tough decision to leave my employment and venture on as a full-time student.
My end goal is to turn the projects I started in Guatemala into a non-profit foundation that helps research, advise on, teach, and promote the use of climate change adaptation strategies for poor people living in highland regions. My experiences provided me with unique perspectives on how climate change is already starting to impact families’ abilities to feed themselves, and I can clearly see the ties between poverty and environmental degradation. For my Master’s degree, I am studying the economic impact of climate change in this vulnerable region, in order to provide myself with baseline data that I can use when I solicit team members and funding to start my NGO.
I currently work half-time in the UConn Office of Environmental Policy, and take graduate classes full-time. My path has not been without its trials. I have, in the past 5 years, suffered three job losses, and have had to physically move 6 times. My personal and family relationships have been strained, as has my health. Going back to school after 15 years away has been challenging, as I accustom myself to a much more demanding mathematical workload than I had ever known before. Life plans had to put on hold. I am paying my way through school, and finding that I am struggling with bills and rent, often wondering if this is all worth it.
Yet I believe in what I am doing. Someone once told me that a calling is “that which you find impossible to walk away from.” It has been said that when you get beyond the US public debate of climate change, and get out into the heart of what the world risks losing at the mercies of unchecked climate change, you may actually learn to love aspects of what may be lost. In my case, I have learned to love it all- the bird species in jeopardy, the people struggling to find their way out of poverty while preserving one of the most fascinating and beautiful cultures on the planet, the cloud forests and maize fields.
My talents and interests have led me to the corn fields of Central America. I am an honorary Maya for the work I have done, and I consider that the greatest reward I have ever received. I try to challenge my students, the ones who work for me every day, to also tap into their individual potential, and think beyond finding “jobs” when they graduate. I want them to care about the work they do, both in the OEP Office, and in the larger scope of the world around them. We are part of a team trying to learn how to motivate people to care about their world, and how to effect positive change. We are trying to develop a sustainable and grateful mindset toward the world around us, one small victory at a time.