“The right tree, the right place, the right time”: Karen Holl PhD ‘85 visits Emma Willard School Science Class

By Kaitlin Resler
Last Spring, Karen Holl PhD '85 was one of four alumnae who presented during the first Eunice Newton Foote Climate Talk at Emma Willard School. The virtual event was moderated by Science Instructor and Sara Lee Schupf Family Chair in Curriculum Excellence and Innovation Megan Labbate, and when Dr. Holl mentioned she would be returning to campus in Fall 2021 for a visit, she coordinated to present, in-person, to one of Ms. Labbate’s science classes.

A professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Karen Holl PhD ‘85 has taught ecological restoration for 20 years. Beginning her presentation with her time at Emma, she says, “What I most remember is that my English teachers taught me to write really well. That was super important in my career, because I’ve written for general audiences and for scientific papers and having those good writing skills is very important.” Alongside those skills, she remarks that the varied experiences available to students like herself at Emma (such as a veterinary internship) were a valuable asset in determining her academic trajectory.

Mapping out that path post-Emma, Dr. Holl details her time at Stanford, where she decided to major in biology rather than pursue an initial interest in veterinary school (“I didn't want to be in school that long, which is ironic because I’ve spent my whole life in school!”), with a specific interest in ecology and learning how living things work. Coupled with that curiosity was the desire to make a difference in the world. “I always tell people, if you’re interested in environmental issues, pick what you like to do [...] there are so many ways to make a difference.”

The wealth of options for getting involved in making change is also something that appeals to Dr. Holl as a professor. “The reason I love [it] is because I get to do all sorts of different things.” From hands-on research in varying geographic locations, to reviewing scientific journals and grant proposals, working one-on-one with graduate students, collaborating with conservation organizations, to writing and speaking in an effort to make sure that “science gets into how we manage our lands,” the variety of ways a person can use their varied skill sets to initiate change are seemingly limitless.

One of the most important themes that emerged in terms of making a difference was collaboration. Throughout her talk, Dr. Holl noted the contributions of partners in research and the importance of creating channels with local collaborators in the places where reforestation efforts are happening. One student’s question centered on the potential difficulties the COVID-19 pandemic has on hands-on research. For some of Dr. Holl’s work, a graduate student from Costa Rica working on research in that area allowed for monitoring to continue when Dr. Holl herself wasn’t able to travel. Implementations on the local scale in other places make on-the-ground work possible (though there were, as everywhere, complications from COVID travel restrictions that changed monitoring of forests in the tropics).
“The work I do, it’s not just my work [...] many countries are trying to restore forests. In 2021, there are at least 3 trillion tree planting campaigns through various organizations and this is really exciting--why is there so much interest in doing this?”

This huge amount of interest comes from a host of different places: the media, environmental activists on YouTube, politicians, and the business community are all very excited at the prospect of planting trees, but it’s not a simple solution. A large part of the class time centered on the complexity of the problems that must be solved in reforestation. That complexity, though at times daunting, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It has to be “the right tree, in the right place, at the right time.” 

Dr. Holl expanded on that very idea by explaining the considerations that go into ecological restoration, how researchers make plans that work within the ecosystems and the people who rely on them (ideally, involving the people who live in places where reforestation will or is occurring to make sure those trees grow, flourish, and will be there to reach their potential as climate change mitigators). In 2020, Dr. Holl published Primer of Ecological Restoration, an introduction to ecological restoration as a strategy to help mitigate climate change. 

Though her remarks and research focus on reforestation and tree growth, she stressed that “It is not a solution on its own. Tree growing is one of many natural climate solutions [...] you need a lot of different tools.”

The questions from students continued to reflect the many-layered nature of Dr. Holl’s talk, alighting on reforestation monitoring technology, livestock management, making decisions for reforestation based on future climate considerations, and regulations on the part of different countries when considering reforestation efforts. Dr. Holl’s answers often returned to solutions that illustrate a layered, collaborative approach: one that uses all the tools in the toolbox, but with the enduring feeling that making a difference, with any skills you have, is possible.
    • Karen Holl PhD '85 speaks to a science class at Emma Willard School

    • Karen Holl PhD '85 speaks to a science class at Emma Willard School

    • Karen Holl PhD '85 published "Primer of Ecological Restoration" in 2020

    • Students in science class at Emma Willard School.

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