Meg Burke, PhD
Director, Science Integration and Operations
A Watershed Moment
After childhood summers in the Bahamas, a graduate school trip to Belize, and a 16-month PhD stint on Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles, Meg Burke expected her 2006 Academy expedition to the Philippines’ Verde Island Passage to feel like familiar territory. “My first dive was absolutely mind-boggling,” says Burke, who still marvels at the region’s matchless biodiversity during each annual expedition. “It was a watershed moment in my life—all I could think about was the importance of preserving these rich reefs for generations to come.”
With unique expertise that spans both science and education, Burke pushes Academy expedition participants to reimagine the ways in which Western natural history institutions explore and help sustain the less-developed world. Year after year, the Academy works with an expanding list of Filipino partners to exchange information, collaborate on projects, build capacity, and target forward-thinking conservation plans in the face of significant environmental threats.
“The Academy is replacing ‘parachute science’ models with new expectations of lasting interaction,” says Burke. “It’s hard to for people to focus on steps towards long-term conservation when local families are struggling to feed their children. True partnerships involve meeting local stakeholders where they are, and doing a great deal of listening.”
Through meetings with local politicians, scientists, teachers, students, and grassroots organizations, Academy staff members get a first-hand look at myriad issues facing Filipinos today. Climate change threatens the future of Philippine coral reefs, and the usual suspects of pollution, overfishing, and mining—combined with poverty and a burgeoning population—add stress to coastal resources and communities.
“During each meeting, whether it's with local communities or a provincial government or Manila, we think about the best types of information and resources we can provide to increase quality of life as well as the health of local ecosystems.” Workshop topics often focus on personal actions such as carrying reusable shopping bags, reducing plastic packaging and littering, and understanding corals are living animals rather than lifeless rocks.
Eye on the Future
When Super Typhoon Haiyan—known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda—tore through Southeast Asia in the fall of 2013, more than 6,300 Filipinos lost their lives. In the aftermath of the staggering tragedy, it became clear that coastal areas with healthy coral reefs and mangrove forests (which reduce wave energy, storm surge, and high winds) experienced less damage.
“Almost everyone knows someone who lost their life or their home during Typhoon Yolanda,” says Burke. “Communities are starting to link their health and safety with that of the natural environment. We have a responsibility to help protect Philippine coastlines, and model our successful partnership programs for other natural history institutions around the world.”