“Power of One” Doctoral Assistantships: Producing Leaders to Tackle Natural Resource Challenges in Developing Nations
Mike Jacobs and Cathy Schloeder received their doctorates in rangeland ecology and wildlife ecology, respectively, at Utah State University in 1999. Beginning in the 1980s, they forged distinguished careers working in difficult places beset by poverty, violence and tough natural resource challenges. Projects have occurred in Ethiopia, Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Afghanistan.
Have these been fruitless endeavors? Absolutely not. Mike and Cathy have demonstrated time and again that love and respect for local people can indeed “move mountains,” and seemingly intractable problems can be effectively addressed. Mixing technical know-how with excellent people skills has been the key to their success.
To more broadly share such perspectives, Mike and Cathy created the “Power of One” doctoral research assistantship starting in 2023 through the S.J & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources (QCNR). An award is given out every four years to the winner of a global competition in partnership with a QCNR faculty mentor. This competition is open to residents of developing nations who otherwise lack opportunity to pursue a graduate degree. But this is not a typical research assistantship. Students are expected to not only publish innovative, game-changing research, but also sow the seeds for their studies to have real-world impact in a short timeline.
Mike and Cathy’s field studies took them back to Ethiopia, this time in the Omo River Valley in the southwest of the country where they focused on ecology and conservation issues.
Mike and Cathy with several PRIME team members.
A Shared Passion for Nature and Education
Mike and Cathy developed strong interests in nature as children growing up in Ohio (Mike) and the Panama Canal Zone (Cathy). Their paths first crossed while pursuing bachelor’s in wildlife biology at the University of Montana. Next, they enrolled in the wildlife management program at West Virginia University to undertake master’s research focused on Red and Gray Foxes in West Virginia (Cathy) and Brown Bears in Alaska (Mike). In 1989, their final year at WVU, they were jointly awarded the Kevin Kinsley Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Studies.
Following completion of their master’s degrees, Mike and Cathy were eager to work overseas. They traveled to several African nations in search of possible projects. They accepted a job in Ethiopia. The task was to develop a management plan for Awash National Park, a dry savanna environment, home to zebra, oryx, gazelles, baboons and lions, located 130 miles from the capital city of Addis Ababa. Awash was under threat from poverty-stricken local people, and Mike and Cathy were charged with helping solve problems founded on shared use of scarce natural resources.
Technical Training Was Not Enough to Save Awash Park
Awash Park was being heavily used by local pastoralists who herded cattle, camels, sheep and goats, much to the dismay of park managers — the pastoralists had little respect for park borders. Park management traditions in Ethiopia dictated that people and livestock should be completely excluded from natural areas to meet conservation goals, and this resulted in conflicts between pastoralists and park staff. This situation greatly challenged Mike and Cathy because their U.S.-based, technical education gave them no tools to improve the situation.
The “light-bulb moment” occurred when Mike and Cathy realized that managing relationships among people and institutions was the key to creating a successful management plan for Awash, not merely a technical focus on animals and plants. The final plan incorporated ways to accommodate the needs of pastoralists and still conserve nature across the park’s landscapes. This reality-based experience shaped Mike and Cathy’s approach for the rest of their careers, as founded on shared problem identification, stakeholder inclusion, consensus building and community empowerment. Mentoring natural resource professionals to build both technical and people skills has also been vital in this process.
Onwards to USU for Doctoral Degrees and Global Assignments
Following the Awash experience, Mike and Cathy enrolled at USU to undertake doctorate work. Their field studies took them back to Ethiopia, this time in the Omo River Valley in the southwest of the country where they focused on ecology and conservation issues. In their last year at USU Mike won the prestigious Robin’s Award as the Outstanding Graduate Student, based on his record as a researcher and teaching assistant on campus.
Upon completing their degrees, Mike and Cathy wasted no time in packing up to head to the Republic of the Congo, where they were assigned the task to improve management for Lac Tel Wildlife Reserve, a tropical swamp-forest region. In preparation for this adventure, they took a three-month crash-course in French at the Alliance Française in Alberta to help them communicate with their field team and all the villagers dependent on the wildlife reserve.
The Collaborative Model Works in Many Places
The most notable assignments in terms of impact for Mike and Cathy occurred with the PEACE project in Afghanistan (2005 to 2012), the JGMUST project in South Sudan (2012 to 2014) and the PRIME project back in Ethiopia (2015 to 2019), all of which were funded by the United States Agency for International Development. For the PEACE and PRIME projects Mike was appointed as chief of party with numerous duties. In Afghanistan, Mike and Cathy navigated a high-stress assignment with courage and dedication — they focused on how to improve non-violent, conflict-resolution processes among rural leaders and better management of dryland resources — winning the respect and affection of many locals as a result. Back in Ethiopia, PRIME focused on pastoral development and natural resource management across three major dry regions of the country. Fundamental to achieving such objectives was how to build the capabilities of project staff, professional collaborators and pastoral communities to create sustainable, positive impacts.
Two Lessons Learned to Change the World
Mike and Cathy have learned a lot on their professional and personal journeys. If it can be boiled down to two basic concepts: (1) Science alone is insufficient to create real change — applied research must be combined with effective outreach and empathy for stakeholders to help make “good things happen;” and (2) investing in talented individuals to become future leaders is vital — such people can have dramatic effects on spurring progress among peer groups, rural communities, key institutions and global society. Hence the role of the “Power of One” Assistantship at USU. This award will help identify and educate special doctoral candidates to not only tackle cutting-edge research in natural resources overseas, but also to conduct parallel studies that assess human needs and identify stakeholder-based pathways for sustainable problem-solving. This makes the “Power of One” Assistantship truly unique.
Why is the QCNR the Home for the “Power of One” Assistantship?
Mike and Cathy are extremely generous in their endowment of the “Power of One” Assistantship. Indeed, they could have chosen another institution to be the home for this award. The reason they selected the QCNR to administer the process was based on the very positive experience they had as doctoral students here in the 1990s. Then and now, the college has provided diverse educational opportunities for graduate students in the form of academic degrees, curricula and coursework delivered by a passionate and talented faculty. The culture of the college is underpinned by progressive values with an emphasis on using cutting-edge applied research to help solve real-world problems. The social inclusivity of the college and USU is another plus that helps create a welcoming environment for students from around the world.
To learn more about this assistantship, visit https://qcnr.usu.edu/graduate/power-of-one.
At Utah State University, assistantships allow graduate students to gain real-world experience and build a resume while working with accomplished faculty. Whether in a lab, a classroom or off campus, graduate students can learn, teach and conduct exciting research all while earning a stipend to support themselves through graduate school. To learn more about funding an assistantship, visit https://www.usu.edu/advancement/campaign/research-innovation.