In Conversation with Dr. Jensen Montambault

In Conversation with Dr. Jensen Montambault

When Jensen Montambault was an undergraduate at UVA, she chose to divide her time between two disparate fields of study--Environmental Science and English Literature. She went on to obtain a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Ecology and has since written extensively about climate change and its impact on modern societies.

“I wanted to bring the poetry back in to science,” she said. Dr. Montambault was this year’s Beverly Cobble Rodriguez Lecturer, invited by the Women’s Center to return to Grounds and speak about her work as the Executive Director of the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP). Like Dr. Montambault herself, SNAPP does not fall into any singular definition. It is a coalition of three groups: the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. SNAPP takes an interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues and operates in different communities to develop solutions to the “global challenges at the intersection of nature conservation, sustainable development, and human well-being.”

Dr. Montambault has been the Executive Director of SNAPP since October of 2017. She is a lifelong Charlottesville resident who spent time in Nicaragua as a Peace Corps officer after graduating from U.Va. in 1995. Upon meeting her, I was struck by how she seems to encompass those same intersections of optimism and pragmatism which characterize SNAPP and other environmentalist groups operating in the precarity of today’s political arena.

On October 23, before she was scheduled to give her lecture, I sat down with Dr. Montambault to discuss her work, her time at UVA and the experiences of women in science.


The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does “sustainability” mean to you? What led you to the work you currently do with SNAPP?

There seem to me to be two very separate tracks to global sustainability. There’s a very socially united track where it seems like there’s a burbling up of communities wanting to take provenance or take license over their own futures. They are the ones who, if the United States government is not going to sign onto the Paris agreements for climate change, if the United States is not going to sign onto the various human rights and women’s rights accords, these people will go in and do it themselves. And that to me is the inspiring path to sustainability. Two decades ago, I would not have foreseen the power heading toward that more democratic, decentralized path.

And then there seems to be another very different track to sustainability, which looks at major macroeconomic pressures like corporate interests, the hedge funds that are controlling a third of the investments in the world. Can we shift the mindsets of few individuals to make decisions or take insurances [to involve] sustainability?

Generally, the people who live in these places, whose lives are being affected by the climate, ask the same questions: what do you know about our culture, our society? Who are you to tell us how to solve our problems? Do you encounter those obstacles in your work with SNAPP?

All the time. Every day. I always feel like I’m outside everything. To the academics, I’m very applied. And to people who are in the industry, I’m very academic. You end up being the person--and I don’t want to say the most mature person in the room, but the one who doesn’t get to express any swelling-up of feelings. And you just need to say you understand where [everyone else] is coming from and really try to understand the different perspectives.

So many of these problems are so broad in their scope. How can you reconcile the global with the local in regards to sustainability and development?

We often use the term “glocal,” which is not one I’d heard before. But we always ask ourselves, what will it look like if we make this framework flexible enough that [any organization] can work with any specific community and apply the same principles? The economic values are not the only measure of human wellbeing, we also look at these cultural assets that are so important and leave room for nuance.

Recently, “twelve years” has become a hot-button phrase. Experts are saying that, within twelve years, sea-level rise is going to become a pressing problem which will need to be immediately addressed. Where do you see sustainability and development work headed in the next twelve, or even five years?

I feel that it’s inevitable. Right now, we’re on a trajectory where most of the radical change to avoid sea-level rise needed to happen forty years ago--and it didn’t. So I’m very much on the track of adaptation. We’ve had so many changes in the last twelve years--even looking back twenty-four years, with the Internet and our [expanded] ability to communicate with each other. Now, we have apps that translate for us. So we can talk to someone in a small village in another country in a way that we couldn’t before.

I think we’re on the cusp of a much more united global fabric than we could have been. And without politicizing climate change, or going down the road of just denying it, [I hope] that we can accept it sooner rather than later. And then we can work together as a woven fabric of new communities and figure out how to live in this new reality.

You first studied sustainability and development as an undergrad at UVA. How would you describe the difference between studying these issues in classrooms versus working with them in the field? Would you say the real life experience helped you to become more optimistic?

Massively so. When I was at UVA, I wanted to be a tenure track professor by the time I was thirty. Happenstance just took me down the route I ended up following, joining the Peace Corps and spending afternoons working side by side with folks and talking to them about what they’ve experienced and overcome--this hopeful vision for their and their children’s future. Getting into the field is huge.

Who are the leaders, particularly the women leaders who have inspired you and led you to the work you’ve done?

When I was at Albemarle High School there was a woman astronaut who came in to give a talk. Besides the fact that she had been in space, which was so amazing, I was in total awe of her after someone asked her how many months she had spent in space. And she said: look, if it’s a good year, I’ll spend two weeks in space. And do you know what I do for the rest of the year? I have a job, I’m a scientist. I write grants, I fill out reports.

And that’s what’s important. No matter what kind of exciting career you want, you focus in school on all of these work skills that they’re trying to teach you. That way, when you have exciting job opportunities, you can pursue them while still being a competent and organized person.

What was your UVA experience like? Did you find that being a student challenged or confirmed any preconceived notions you may have had?

When I was a fourth year at UVA, I was a double major in Environmental Science and English so I had a final capstone project in each of them. And one of my advisors was a woman in the environmental science department and she actually ended up leaving--she found that the department was not supportive and she moved to another university. Years later, when I was in grad school, I read in a science magazine that she had been voted one of the top science mentors in the United States for that year. And I was sobered because she really was awesome. She was a great mentor. She was doing all the right things and she left because she felt unsupported.

When I was here, I wrote for The Declaration, an alternative newspaper, and the editor sent me to interview the heads of science departments to find out why there are so few women in sciences. And the answers I got! Like I was any little girl who just walked in. We’re totally fine, and things like that. So, there were those experiences.

Would you say that other university experiences were an improvement from what you saw at UVA? Particularly with the dismissive attitude toward women in the sciences, do you think that this is something that is universal to most science programs?

I do think that it is something that’s changing. When I worked for Conservation International, I was doing really intense field science, deep in wilderness areas. I would often be the only woman on the trips, and that had its own set of logistical and support issues.

I feel that, with this generation, it’s seeming more equal. Certainly [with SNAPP], we were really excited that, for 2018, we had 52% women leaders applying for grants which ended up being recommended for funding. We try to be very mindful of making sure that all of our leaders have the support they need to succeed. Many times they are the first female leader of a predominantly male team, and that absolutely needs social support. We always try to be very aware of people’s circumstances.

If there was one piece of advice you could impart on the young women starting to work in the field of development advocacy, who want to apply for grants and lead teams which might be mostly composed of men, what would you say?

I think that everyone gets discriminated against. If it’s not your gender, it’s something else. And it can be easy to feel uncertain, if you see an obvious physical difference. And many times, the differences other people have are so much less visual than your relative age or the gender you are expressing. So I think that there is a reinforcing narrative that everyone has in their head.

[I would say] just be mindful, if you hear that narrative in the back of your head, saying you’re not being respected because you’re a woman. Be forthright in whatever way fits your personality. Talk to people, say: hey, I want to hear about your story, what makes you different as a person? Where did you think you were going to be thirty years ago? How did you get here now?

I think that opening that door to engaging across everyone’s difference is very helpful for early career women in the field.