Nelson student awarded the 2020 National Geographic Early Career Grant

May 7, 2020

Nelson Institute Environment and Resources Master’s student Allison Rogers has been awarded the National Geographic Society Early Career Grant and named a 2020 National Geographic Explorer in support of her community-based conservation research in Uganda.

A graduate of Duke University with double majors in evolutionary anthropology and biology, Rogers has spent much of her early career studying primate behavioral ecology and conservation. After receiving her undergraduate research training at Duke’s Jane Goodall Institute Research Center as well as the Duke Lemur Center, Rogers worked in several field assistant positions studying baboons, blue monkeys, and chimpanzees in South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. 

“I gained a lot of field and professional skills, but also developed my research interests as I absorbed all I was seeing,” Rogers said. “Those projects were aimed toward learning more about primate social behavior and evolution, but I couldn’t ignore all the clashing of human and wildlife interests. Usually it was monkeys scavenging from, and therefore damaging, garden plots or farms, and people setting snares or hunting with dogs, clear-cutting natural forest, and illegally grazing cattle in protected areas. At its worst, I saw this conflict result in the retaliatory killing of our alpha male baboon, likely due to the baboon troop’s routine crop-foraging. These experiences inspired my transition of research interests to focusing on integrating knowledge of animal behavior with community-based conservation initiatives.”

After determining that she wanted to focus her research on community-based conservation, Rogers applied to the Nelson Institute and, after being accepted in 2019, Rogers began working with her advisor, Nelson Institute affiliate professor, Lisa Naughton on plans for a research project in Uganda. As they worked together, Naughton encouraged Rogers to apply for the National Geographic Society Early Career Grant.

“The Early Career Grant is intended for people like me who have less leadership experience or don’t yet have an advanced degree, and it provides funding to lead a project,” Rogers said. “The application required a complete project proposal including project background, goals, methods, expected outputs, and a preliminary budget. I felt like I applied on a total whim because these grants are extremely competitive and I was in my first couple months of my Master’s program, but I also knew I had a compelling project that is the sort of thing NGS might be likely to support. I’m really grateful my advisor encouraged me to try and that both she and another Nelson faculty member, Adrian Treves, thoughtfully edited the application under immense time pressure before I submitted.”

Rogers was ultimately among those selected for the award, receiving $10,000, the maximum allowable under this grant category.

“I’m extremely grateful to be a recipient because it will fund a significant portion of my Master’s research in Uganda,” Rogers said. “Without this funding, I may have had to significantly scale back portions of my project. It was a huge relief and now I should have all the funding I need to move forward with it once travel is possible again. Additionally, getting connected with the National Geographic explorer network is a great opportunity for advancing my career in the future.”

While Rogers is still in the early stages of her program, she plans to continue to focus on improving human-wildlife coexistence in places where humans and wildlife still share space. She is particularly interested in the issues happening along the protected areas in East Africa, so she has been studying Swahili this year as a Foreign Area and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellow and has been awarded a FLAS Fellowship in Swahili for next academic year.

“Mitigating common points of conflict between humans and wildlife results in the continued conservation of wildlife and protected areas as well as the protection of human lives and livelihoods,” Rogers said. “Aside from the long history of colonialism and environmental injustice contributing to issues in these areas, which, in itself, is one reason to work towards improving livelihoods of people living on the edge of parks, alleviating conflict results in improved community perceptions of wildlife and protected areas and therefore helps keep those parks protected in the future.”

In particular, Rogers Master’s research will focus on evaluating the effectiveness of various human-implemented strategies that aim to deter elephants from crop-foraging in farms bordering Kibale National Park, Uganda.

“People live quite densely on the park edge and have historically struggled with wildlife leaving the park to eat from their crops,” Rogers said. “Elephants are particularly disastrous because they are dangerous to humans and can also destroy entire crops overnight. Recently, the community organized to try strategies that have proved successful in deterring elephants elsewhere: trenches, beehive fences (elephants avoid bees!), and unpalatable crops like garlic. For my research, I will use transect surveys to map where crop damage occurs and analyze that against proximity to trenches, beehives, or unpalatable crops. With that information we can make recommendations to community members about which strategies they should continue to maintain or implement.”

Though Rogers’s research is postponed due to COVID-19, she’s continuing to engage with these topics through some graduate work she’s completing some graduate work within the Nelson Institute attending courses such as Nelson Institute Professor Holly Gibbs’ Environmental Studies 900: Approaches to Reduce Tropical Deforestation and learning from her fellow students.  

“This is only my first year in Nelson, but I’ve been really happy with how welcoming, supportive, and collaborative it is. We all come from quite different fields and backgrounds but that’s very useful when seeking diverse perspectives or planning interdisciplinary projects, and everyone is great about sharing resources and tips,” Rogers said. “I’ve also enjoyed finding great community in my cohort as well as older students who are able to provide guidance or advice.

I may consider staying on for a PhD in the same program here to continue to explore improving human-wildlife coexistence near protected areas in East Africa. There are parallel stories (e.g. conflict with wolves, bears, mountain lions, etc.) in the US that I think are interesting to consider, too.”

Image courtesy of Allison Rogers