#EcoHeroine Series: Dr. Optimism

An undergraduate of Harvard University, Nancy completed her PhD at the University of California at Berkeley


In her personal style, renowned marine biologist and conservationist Nancy Knowlton tends to be reserved and quiet (her words), and says this may lead some people to perceive her as being standoffish or snobbish. As an introvert, this resonated deeply with me. In a world that tends to idealize extroverted leaders, the quiet strengths of an introverted leader can be overlooked or worse, misjudged (if you’re a woman and an introvert, this can sometimes lead to being perceived as ‘cold’ or ‘stuck up’).

Declaring and owning one’s introversion up front, as Nancy does, is a great way to let people know who you are right off the bat. It can preempt misunderstandings with colleagues (“I’m just shy, it’s not personal, I’m listening and I care”). It can be very freeing, much better than going through the painful contortions of trying to adapt to the idealized version of extrovert dominant leadership in western culture.

It’s time for workplace cultures to expand the model of leadership from one dominated by high energy extroversion to one that is more inclusive, that recognizes the strengths of our different styles and accommodates everyone’s needs. Introverts, for example, need time and spaces to retreat and reflect, and since they often do their best creative thinking alone, they cherish breaks from the modern tyranny of frequent meetings and team work. The quiet strengths of introverts, such as listening, preparation, calmness and keen observational skills, are all qualities found in excellent and successful leaders. Leaders like Nancy Knowlton. Here’s to the quiet revolution.

Making the planet better

For marine biologist Nancy Knowlton, witnessing the loss of more than 80 percent of coral reef coverage in the Caribbean since she and scientist-spouse Jeremy Jackson first started studying them in the 1970s, has had a profound impact on the trajectory of her career. “Watching coral reefs go to hell, we went from doing academic and unapplied research, to doing what we could do to make the planet better,” she says.

Nearly five decades later, Nancy is a global giant among coral reef biologists. What we know today about the astounding diversity of life on coral reefs, the urgent threats they face, and the key function that biodiversity plays in keeping coral reefs more resistant to the threats of warmer ocean temperatures, is thanks in no small part to the curiosity and drive of Nancy and her collaborators.

“Watching coral reefs go to hell, we went from doing academic and unapplied research, to doing what we could do to make the planet better.”

Spreading Earth optimism

Despite the bleak outlook for the world’s oceans, Nancy refuses to wallow in doom and gloom. Instead, she’s leading a movement to bring back hope by sharing success stories of scalable and replicable marine projects around the world through the hashtag #Ocean Optimism, which has been used by more than 45 million twitter accounts and ignited a global “twitter storm of hope”. The epic response confirms the power of positivity to counteract the culture of hopelessness prevalent in conservation circles, and led to the first Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit in 2017, an upbeat global gathering of change makers who are delivering conservation wins. “It’s a new model of letting people know that there’s more than doom and gloom out there,” says Nancy. 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and summit events will occur again around the world (sadly, all postponed due to Coivd-19).

Working through inspiration

Inspiration has always been a defining feature of Nancy’s leadership style. “You can work through inspiration or through fear. To be an effective leader, it’s important to have a strong vision, message or program that is both important and the leader is committed to, and a willingness to listen to and bring others on board to help shape that vision” she says. “In conservation, we have to be able to get people to work together.”

By any measure, Nancy has succeeded in inspiring others, amassing an impressive array of accolades along the way: member of the US National Academy of Sciences, chair of the World Bank’s Coral Reef Targeted Research Program for eight years, and founder of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, a path-breaking program that brought natural and social sciences together to solve environmental problems. In 1999, Nancy was named an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, and joined the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2008. She also co-led the coral reef census of the international Census of Marine Life, which led to writing a popular book, Citizens of the Sea (my kids love this book), an ode to the wonders and importance of marine life. In recognition of her outstanding contributions to the environment, Nancy received the Heinz Award in 2011, and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s Oceans Award in 2019.

Breaking through barriers

Coming up through the ranks of academia was not always easy though, and Nancy says she encountered plenty of barriers. “There have been times when there was an old boys’ club mentality among the leadership and my colleagues, and there were situations where it got in the way,” she says. She was driven out of one organization by a“boss who set out to block anything that wasn’t his idea.”

Unwilling to compromise on her goals, Nancy moved on whenever she’d felt she’d done as much as she could. This penchant for risk-taking, combined with her intellectual prowess, landed her coveted roles at several prestigious organizations, including Yale University, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and prior to her retirement earlier this year, as Sant Chair of Marine Science at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“A lot of people can’t see past the inconvenience of moving, of learning a new system,” says Nancy. “I was willing to move when I felt like I couldn’t do more or no one else believed in what I was doing.”

Believe in yourself

These experiences taught Nancy the importance of believing in yourself, and she encourages younger women in conservation science to stay positive when they face obstacles. “If you believe that what you are doing is important, don’t get discouraged, keep pushing at it. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole, and if what you’re doing is important but not working out where you are, don’t beat your head against a brick wall, be open to changing the context and the setting.”

“If you believe that what you are doing is important, don’t get discouraged, keep pushing at it.”

When it comes to her own weaknesses as a leader, Nancy is self-aware. “I tend to be kind of quiet and some people take that as being standoffish. People think that maybe I’m a snob but it’s just that I’m basically shy and withdrawn in terms of my personal style,” she says. “I also have a terrible time remembering faces, I don’t remember people that I’ve met visually, it’s a genetic thing, and that can be a liability.”  These hard-wired personal attributes, about which a person can only do so much, says Nancy, can sometimes get in the way. (They can also be superpowers, as introverts tend to be deep thinkers and engaging one-on-one conversationalists).

Having supportive mentors and role models—such as Ruth Turner, a highly respected marine biologist and one of Harvard’s first tenured women professors—has been valuable to Nancy’s growth as a scientist and conservationist, as have thought partners like Jeremy, and supportive bosses such as Charles Kennel at Scripps, who believed in what she was doing and let her do it.

These days, Nancy is inspired by younger role models like Greta Thunberg and Katherine Hayhoe for their work on climate change. Looking to the future, she stresses the need to pave the way for more women leaders in conservation. “Women are disproportionately represented in conservation ranks, so it’s important to make sure there’s a pipeline so women can rise to leadership roles.”

 – Sharon Ryan 

P.S. You can join the conversation in the Collective, a diverse, supportive women conservationists from around the world who are sharing stories and resources, and cheering each other on!

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