The Nature of Change
Fulbrighter Alex Todorovic-Jones studies how people and nature are adapting to climate change in the Himalayas.
Call her a professional tree hugger or nature lover, the 2016 Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Scholar Alex Todorovic-Jones does more than just hugging trees—she studies them. That and how trees and the people living among them in agricultural villages in the eastern Himalayas are adapting to climate change. This work, she hopes, will help “people understand climate change and protect future generations from its repercussions.”
Todorovic-Jones plans to publish her latest research which, after months in the field, she finalized in Bengaluru, in affiliation with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a nonprofit organization working to conserve India’s biodiversity. Her focus is on human-dominated forest landscapes, and she builds on ATREE’s previous research, analyzing 3,500 samples, 153 of which she collected herself.
“I conducted 12 group discussions with over 60 household members. Then, I used the discussion data to develop a more thorough individual survey,” says Todorovic-Jones. Her research took her to six villages ATREE had yet to reach for climate-smart agriculture trainings.
While she now concentrates on the people living in forests, Todorovic-Jones’ interest in nature began with trees.
After growing up in the urban cities of Newport in Rhode Island, and Cambridge in Massachusetts, Todorovic-Jones attended the University of Colorado Boulder for geography and environmental studies. There, she discovered how important natural areas are to her. Through one of her research jobs, she was able to go to every single national forest in Colorado.
Todorovic-Jones left Boulder “obsessed with climate change and mountain ecology,” craving “a more scientific understanding of how climate change affects forest areas.” She followed her curiosity to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in Connecticut, where she completed a master of forest science program. The research for her master’s project took her to the Himalayas for the first time. There, she studied the banj oak, an evergreen tree significant to the local communities as it’s “anecdotally known to enrich the soil, prevent erosion and help biodiversity. The tree also provides acorns, which people eat,” says Todorovic-Jones.
She got to know the banj oak quite well while collecting samples for her project.
“Basically, I climbed the trees and investigated their physiology—think water capacity, chemical components, and leaf and wood structure—to understand how they might be affected by climate change,” says Todorovic-Jones. She worked with forest officials and technicians, along with more than a dozen Indian academics, to determine how the banj oak changes with fluctuations in temperature and precipitation patterns.
While her master’s work gave Todorovic-Jones the hard skills she needed to research physical specimens successfully, it left her wanting to merge those skills with the social science skills she developed working with nongovernmental organizations and her academic colleagues.
“In the Indian Himalayas, there is a romantic, spiritual and economic connection between people and forests. People live in forested regions and are directly connected to the areas. What did this tell me? Science matters here. We have the potential to understand ecology and use that information to help make decisions in this human-dominated forest landscape that would help people and nature,” she says.
It’s the desire to fulfill this potential for understanding that drives Todorovic-Jones’s Fulbright research and her plans for the future. Upon completing her grant, she sees herself publishing her research results and then working with a sustainability company for a few years. Her long-term goal, however, is to “become a head scientist at a conservation organization and be able to communicate the necessity and importance of science for a range of audiences.”
As Todorovic-Jones gathers the private sector experience she needs, and then pursues her Ph.D., there’s no doubt her love of nature will continue to guide her work.
“I can’t imagine life without natural areas,” she says. “When you go to natural areas, you inevitably see and feel the world is much bigger than you and whatever problems you have at that moment. I’m a better person with nature around. I think other people, even those without access to natural spaces right now, have a right to have them there and protected for the future.”
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.