A 'Natural Leader' Karen Bailey Focuses on Communities in Need

By Hannah O. Brown

If you’ve met Karen Bailey, you’ve probably witnessed her giving back to those around her, whether it’s leading a meeting of colleagues or organizing an educational program for under-served students.

Bailey is a PhD candidate through SNRE, who is set to graduate in Spring 2018.

Originally from central Los Angeles, Bailey says she was accepted into Princeton as an undergraduate student because of luck—but again, if you know her, you know it had to be more than that.

Bailey is a leader in every sense of the word. As a master’s student in UF’s Deptartment of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Bailey helped to found the Natural Resources Diversity Initiative, a student-led group that works weekly with local schools and organizations to expose a diverse audience to opportunities in the natural resource arena.

The mission of the group hits close to home for Bailey, who describes her life in two distinct phases: “Sort of 0-18, I was surrounded by poor people of color, and sort of 18-31, I’m more often the only one in the room.”

“We don’t have many role models, and especially coming from the inner city, we all want to be veterinarians or maybe Steve Irwin when he was around."

“It has been very dichotomous,” she said. “These two phases have made it more obvious the stark contrasts that exist in this country.”

Through NRDI, she hopes to give kids a better idea of the variety of environmental jobs that exist—a realization that she uncovered for herself in her teenage years.

“We don’t have many role models, and especially coming from the inner city, we all want to be veterinarians or maybe Steve Irwin when he was around,” she said.

Just as Bailey’s work with NRDI is rooted in personal experience, so is her research.

Bailey’s dissertation research focused on whether households experiencing the worst drought in Swaziland’s recorded history were able to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Did they have the resources and knowledge to adapt? And were they willing—meaning what were the psychological and cognitive processes at play in their decision-making?

She also looked at well-being, nutrition and health. She weighed and measured the height of children less than 5 years old and collected food security data to try to understand the relationship between a household’s food access and their well-being.

“It was really challenging at times,” Bailey said. “These are people who are not like starving, starving, but very used to not being able to feed their families. To hear them talk about that process was a real emotional challenge.”

At the same time, Bailey felt very connected to the people in Swaziland, both because of the warmth from the communities there and the sense of familiarity with her own family.

“I think it was the combination of feeling like I could be these people, like my family could be them, and also recognizing that its part of the same systemic processes that led to the same things that my family experienced growing up and continue to experience,” she said, referring to the similarities of widespread racial discrimination in both the U.S. and Swaziland.

But Bailey's focus research focus was not always directed at human dimensions. When she began her graduate career at UF, her research was more focused on ecology. It was while Bailey was trapping rodents in Swaziland for master's research that she had a change of heart.

"I came back and had my crisis of faith, which I think that everyone goes through," she said. "I was trying to sort of shoe-horn rodents into this ecosystem services framework. But people don’t care about rodents, and that became painfully obvious. I realized that I was trying to do that because I was more interested in human-wildlife interactions."

After receiving her master's from UF's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, she shifted her focus to a more interdisciplinary approach to ecology. One that centered around the human dimensions of the same communities she had observed in Swaziland while researching rodents for her master's.

Because of this, she had a lot of ground to cover in pursuing an interdisciplinary research project, from synthesizing disparate bodies of literature to learning the ins-and-outs of constructing and testing a reliable survey instrument. Looking back now, she sees that it was a challenge.

“The more interdisciplinary you get, the more you realize how much is actually involved. You go down one path and you realize there are these seven other fields here,” she said. “And then there is making data talk to other data, which doesn’t always work for technical reasons, but also conceptually.”

“She has unmatched social and communication skills,” said Bob McCleery, Bailey’s advisor and professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

Bob McCleery, Bailey’s advisor and professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, describes Bailey’s research as a bold project that worked to fill critical gaps in how people choose to adapt to environmental stressors, exploring what those choices mean for their well-being.

“Karen did something that few young scientists can do, work seamlessly at the nexus of sociology and ecological systems,” McCleery said. “This ability allowed her to develop insights, perspective and solutions that can only come from an interdisciplinary approach.”

McCleery acknowledged that Bailey was especially suited to take on the project, calling her a “natural leader.”

“She has unmatched social and communication skills that helped her thrive in a different culture and potentially difficult research environment,” he said.

Though Bailey is happy to be forging new territory in the interdisciplinary world, working with social and environmental systems in tandem, she recognizes how straddling multiple fields can make it difficult to define oneself professionally. Ultimately, however, she sees her shift toward a more sociological approach to ecology as positive—and one that has left her more fulfilled.

“I think it’s a much better fit because I am always thinking about people, and I am always thinking about their relationships with the environment,” she said.

“I just think everyone should be okay with failure. I’m no longer really calling it that. I’m calling it pivoting.”

Bailey hopes to find a position working with an organization that aims to answer the kinds of interdisciplinary questions she is interested in, which primarily deal with coupled social-ecological systems in the developing world. If she has learned anything from her experience in graduate school—and in life—it’s not to give up.

“I just think everyone should be okay with failure,” she said. “I’m no longer really calling it that. I’m calling it pivoting.”

Created By
Hannah Brown


Photos courtesy of Karen Bailey

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