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Lauren Pharr Named Young Conservationist of the Year

Lauren works in the woods - Lauren Pharr Named Young Conservationist of the Year - College of Natural Resources News NC State University
Photo Credit: Mike Fernandez, National Audubon Society

Third-year Ph.D. student Lauren Pharr was recently honored with the 2023 Governor’s Conservationist Achievement Award for Young Conservationist of the Year. Sponsored by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, this awards program highlights individuals and organizations who have worked for conservation in North Carolina. 

“It is a huge validation for the work that I’m doing, and a tremendous honor,” Pharr said. “Although accolades like this are wonderful — and again, surely validating — getting to see the impact that my work is having on others is what really matters to me. Of course, I couldn’t do it without the help and support of my wonderful advisors, mentors and collaborators. The faces of conservation are changing, and I am so honored that I can say I was a part of that change.”

Pharr, who is studying fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at the NC State College of Natural Resources, has been a longtime advocate of wildlife conservation. In 2021, she earned her master’s degree in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at NC State, and she is the recipient of the Arthur W. Cooper Graduate Fellowship, Forestry and Environmental Resources Faculty Fellowship for Excellence in Graduate Education, and the Charles B. Davey Fellowship for Excellence in Biological Sciences. 

Pharr is also a graduate research assistant in the college and a co-founder of Field Inclusive, a nonprofit organization that supports field researchers from marginalized and underrepresented communities. Creating social safety protocols for these researchers has been an important mission for the nonprofit.

Pharr credits her family and undergraduate mentors as inspiration for her path into wildlife conservation. “Both my dad (a hunter) and my uncle (a birder) exposed me to the outdoors, nature and birds when I was younger before I even knew that pursuing a career in wildlife biology was a path I could take,” she said. “My passion for all of that was always there.”

As a graduate student, Pharr’s research has focused on avian conservation, something influenced in part by her love for birdwatching. She credits her advisor, Caren Cooper, for introducing her to the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species native to the southeastern United States. It has been Pharr’s goal to study an intensive topic for her field work and the red-cockaded woodpecker has proven to be far from a disappointing subject. “I have only been studying red-cockaded woodpeckers for almost three years, but it feels like a lifetime of nothing but pure satisfaction,” she said. 

In Pharr’s studies, she has been learning about the history of the endangered species, its conservation success story, and how the species depends on specific conservation and management to continue to thrive, which red-cockaded woodpeckers have been doing over the past few years. “Now, it’s all about continuing to understand impacts of a changing world, and in this specific case, climate change, so that we can make sure this species (as well as others) is protected and around for years to come.”

When she’s not conducting research and studying, Pharr is serving as an instructor for the annual Bird Banding Workshop at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center (WCWC) and as an instructor for Field Inclusive’s “Beginning Birders” program with the WCWC, which is located right in the heart of an underserved community in Raleigh. Field Inclusive was co-founded alongside Murry Burgess, a recent Ph.D. graduate of the fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology program, when the duo recognized the need for field safety for at-risk researchers in minority populations. 

“When individuals from these backgrounds enter unfamiliar communities in the course of field work, they may be placed in an uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, ‘othered’ position, and prejudice may manifest against them,” Pharr said. “Having continued to conduct field work outdoors as a part of our Ph.D. program requirements at North Carolina State University, and having witnessed and experienced some of these instances first hand, it was then that Murry and I knew that something had to be done.”

It was then that they realized that social field safety needed to be raised to the same level as regular physical field safety, which includes identifying poisonous plants and venomous animals, or watching out for stump holes. Through a partnership with the College of Natural Resources, Field Inclusive has incorporated safety protocols for field researchers.

The nonprofit has so far been able to award two research grants, one travel award, and one fellowship to minority individuals, thanks to the support of sponsors like The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina Chapter, the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, Wake Audubon Society, North Carolina Sea Grant, Cape Fear Bird Observatory, Wilson Ornithological Society and Tracy Aviary.

The future looks bright for Pharr, who continues to advocate for and encourage the participation of people of color in STEM fields. Her long-term goals include becoming a professor, mentor and a prominent public scientist who strives for equity and inclusion. She plans to implement multicultural curriculum transformation and incorporate environmental justice, diversity and inclusion into courses.

“This field has not always been Black and white,” Pharr said. “And people wonder why that is. But throughout all of this, there was one thing that I came to realize the further I got in my studies: there are not a lot of people who look like me in the conservation field. Even now, I am always finding myself representing the minority amongst my colleagues in various spaces: academic, environmental organizations, committees dedicated to conservation. Every other day, I am reminded of this, but every other day, I am also reminded that I am paving the way for others like me in this field.”