Published: March 1, 2017

Women in Science: Corine Vriesendorp, Conservation Ecologist

Corine Vriesendorp, MacArthur Senior Conservation Ecologist and Director of the Andes-Amazon Program, Keller Science Action Center


Woman wearing a baseball cap and blue shirt in a rainforest-like setting, holding a large rock

We're highlighting women in science at The Field Museum and their diverse areas of research, paths to working in science, and their advice for future scientists. Hear from Corine Vriesendorp, MacArthur Sr. Conservation Ecologist, Director, Andes-Amazon program:

How did you get where you are today?
When I was an undergraduate, I had a chance to work on a project on mahogany in Bolivia. It was mind-blowing. Bouncing along logging roads on the back of a Jeep, I couldn’t believe my luck. I spent my days searching for mahogany seedlings and trying to learn the local names for the trees. I spent my evenings trying to improve my Spanish and listen to the Bolivians tell stories about the forest. With all the depressing news about deforestation and cattle ranching that I heard in the U.S., I hadn’t realized that a vast part of the Amazon was still intact. I loved every bit of this experience—working with the Chimane indigenous people, fishing for our dinner in the early morning, and exploring a forest that stretched to the horizon. This kickstarted my next 25 years of working on the biodiversity and conservation of tropical forests and the wellbeing of the people who depend on those forests. 

What does your job entail? What's the day-to-day like?  Two rows of people posing for a photo, with a forest visible in the background
At the Museum, my day-to-day involves calls with colleagues in Peru and Colombia, strategy sessions with my team where we plan our next trip or expedition, and writing emails, technical reports, and book chapters. In the field, my day-to-day involves covering as much ground as possible and collecting every plant with fruits or flowers, pressing those plants with my colleagues late into the night, and coordinating a 20-person team that is studying the rocks, waters, plants, fishes, frogs, snakes, birds, and mammals of a remote, unexplored place. 

What has been your favorite part of the job, or a memorable moment?  Woman in a red baseball cap and blue shirt drinking out of a bowl, next to a woman in a bright green shirt with decorative markings on her face

It's too hard to single out one moment; the whole job sometimes feels like one long, beautiful highlight reel. I’ve flown thousands of kilometers over the Andes and Amazon in a small plane, come face-to-face with a startled tapir, shared intense conversations with indigenous people in the Peruvian, Bolivian, Ecuadorean, and Colombian Amazon, been stalked by a jaguar and seen gorgeous petroglyphs and rock art made by people who lived in these forests 10,000 years ago. And I’ve been lucky to spend all of these moments with an incredible team of people—my colleagues are spectacular and have taught me so much. 

What advice do you have for future scientists?
Stay curious. Let what you see guide the questions you ask. And work in multidisciplinary teams. As a biologist, I’ve learned so much from anthropologists, geologists, and geographers—it is important to keep pushing the edges your knowledge. 

Corine Vriesendorp
MacArthur Senior Conservation Ecologist and Director of the Andes-Amazon Program, Keller Science Action Center

Corine directs the Andes-Amazon program in the Keller Science Action Center. She is a field biologist with deep experience with the flora and vegetation of the remotest corners of the Western Amazon. She works closely with South American partners to bring science to bear on conservation and the quality of life of local people.