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

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. 

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

As Director of the Andes-Amazon program, Dr. Corine Vriesendorp leads the Museum's work on conservation and quality of life of local people. She has been an integral part of the rapid inventory team since 2003, a program that has led to the discovery of more than 150 species new to science, and helped governments protect more than 9.4 million hectares of forest in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.  An avid field biologist and plant ecologist, Dr. Vriesendorp participates in the inventories as a member of the botany team. Her interests and research bridge the continuum from basic to applied science. She began her career studying mahogany in Bolivia, researching the impact of logging practices on mahogany populations, and creating recommendations for better management practices.

She went on to research seedling dynamics of a tropical forest community in Costa Rica, to understand birth and death processes in high-diversity forests and their implications for the conservation and management of these forests. Her seedling work is ongoing—she and her team have marked more than 40,000 seedlings since 1999.

Dr. Vriesendorp is most fascinated by the connections among organisms, and although she has published peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and technical reports about plants, she also has written short natural history notes about mammals and amphibians.

She received her B.A. from Princeton University, and her Phd from Michigan State University. Her dissertation was on the maintenance of plant diversity in a Costa Rican rainforest