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December 21, 2018

Michael Wironen has joined one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, but not before giving Vermont leaders some serious food for thought.

As a UVM PhD student, the Gund Graduate Fellow gave the state’s phosphorus pollution problem a forensic accounting straight out of a police procedural. Call it CSI: Global Dairy Industry. 

Wironen's research revealed that Vermont’s phosphorus surplus has been growing for decades at a rate of over 1,000 tons per year, largely due to imports of agricultural fertilizer and feed containing phosphorus. 

Shortly after his results were published, the Switzer Fellow got a crash course in science and policy communication, presenting to state senators, policymakers and journalists from newspapers, radio and TV. 

Just weeks after graduating earlier this year, Wironen was hired by The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s largest environmental organizations, which works in 72 countries and 50 states. He is a Senior Scientist for Agriculture and Food Systems, based in Washington, D.C. 

As Wironen works to scale-up sustainable agriculture with businesses, he took time to share tips for grad students (Gund seeks PhDs applicants for Fall 2019), opine on the merits of lake swimming in Vermont – and explain why he believes the future is in good hands. 

What did you study Gund?

I did my Ph.D. with Jon Erickson in the Rubenstein School for Environment and Natural Resources, as part of Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A). Along the way I also earned a Graduate Certificate in Ecological Economics.

Where are from?

I grew up in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. Before coming to the Gund I lived in Brooklyn, New York for seven years, where I worked as an environmental consultant.

What attracted you to the Gund?

I was attracted to several things: the chance to join the E4A project and collaborate with scholars at multiple universities; the opportunity to complete a deeply interdisciplinary PhD at an institution that takes seriously its mission to support both practical, applied research and more radical thinking; and, the chance to live in Burlington for a few years!

What contributions are you most proud of?

My research focused on a hot topic in Vermont: phosphorus and agriculture. I was able to complete a relatively simple study that drew attention to part of the water quality challenge that had been neglected in many policy and public discussions. I had the good fortune to be invited to speak about this research during testimony I gave to the State Senate, in a few radio and magazine interviews, and even during a TV interview! I don’t think I could have had a similar impact outside of Vermont.

Any favorite research trips?

While at the Gund I traveled frequently to Quebec to collaborate with colleagues from E4A. I was also fortunate to receive some support from the Gund to travel to Sweden, Australia, and Vancouver, Canada for academic conferences. In addition to conference-related travel, one of the more memorable experiences I had was visiting southern Brazil for an agroecology field course, again supported in part by the Gund.

Was grad school all work, or were you able to play too? What did you do for fun outside school? Any highlights?

Much of my free time was spent with my two little boys, who loved their time in Vermont. We spent many days exploring the farms and orchards of Vermont, as well as swimming in the Lake. We also had an incredible Gund grad student trenchball team. 

What’s on your Vermont bucket list?

Pretty much anything outdoors is great in Vermont, especially during the incredible summer and fall. As far as things still on my bucket list, I never managed to make it to Hill Farmstead. Sigh. Also, I’d love to go to Craftsbury for cross-country skiing. 

Looking back, what where your favorite Gund qualities?

I really appreciated the open-mindedness, diverse array of perspectives, and commitment to spirited intellectual debate. Also, everyone had a good sense of humor, which helps in a crowded building. 

What will you remember most about your time at UVM?

I’ll remember my great colleagues. I also had the chance to teach a few classes and got to know some really bright, inspiring undergrads. It’s always nice to be reminded that the future is in good hands. 

What was it like juggling grad school and a professional career?

One of the things I have learned in my professional career is how to balance competing priorities. That skill was crucial during my PhD, when I had to balance academic commitments, teaching responsibilities, consulting work, and helping raise young children. I am fortunate to have an amazing spouse who makes that balancing act a lot easier than it might be otherwise.

How do you like your new job?

My new job is great – challenging, exciting, yet in a workplace that is friendly, not too stressful, and filled with smart people. Kind of like the Gund! Right now, most of my time is spent working with major global agribusinesses to transform their business practices to help scale up sustainable agriculture and food systems. I’m lucky to have landed in a position that draws on my previous experience as a consultant as well as the academic knowledge I developed during my PhD. 

How did your time at the Gund prepare you for your new job?

My PhD work helped expose me to the challenges and competing narratives around sustainable agriculture, knowledge I draw on routinely in my work. My research and study of group decision-making and ecological economics also helped expand my technical vocabulary and toolkit. 

Any advice for the next cohort of grad students?

Enjoy your time in grad school, because it is a rare opportunity to explore topics and subjects you might not have the time to once you’re back in the professional world. While in many ways it is easier to dive deeply into one subject and develop your expertise and academic reputation, I think there’s a lot of value in pushing yourself to learn things outside your comfort zone, and that is easy at a place as diverse as the Gund. Also, at an institution that really cares about having “real-world” impact, I think it’s always helpful to ask yourself how your research can contribute to making change happen – who will use it? How? Why? 

Learn more about Gund PhD opportunities. Applications are due January 18, 2019. 

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