Born with a love of animals and the outdoors, Shawn Margles, ES ’06, once told her sixth-grade teacher that she wanted to study marine biology on the Great Barrier Reef. Later that year, she was instructed to write a letter to a celebrity, and Shawn chose Jane Goodall, who wrote back.
The intervening years brought many detours, but today, after studying in Africa as an Antioch University New England student, Shawn is deep into the marine biology of the Caribbean. As a conservation planner for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), she has conducted projects in Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, and St. Kitts/Nevis since 2008. It’s not the Great Barrier Reef, Shawn says with a laugh, “but I’m not too disappointed. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better job for me.”
Why Conservation Biology?
Shawn focused on conservation biology at AUNE because it was my weakest area, she says. “I wanted to be good at science, so I knew I needed to get out and do it.” In the Caribbean, Shawn uses scientific data to analyze the natural systems and identify areas for protection, then she involves communities in the planning process. Her experience with participatory planning in Africa, under the direction of Antioch’s Dr. Beth Kaplin, prepared her for combining science with community development.
“I meet with a mix of grassroots activists, officials, agencies, NGOs, and other stakeholders, like fishermen, all the time,” Shawn says. “The process itself can build capacity and an understanding of the issues. People end up having conversations they’ve never had before, learning new scientific information. And for me, that’s the best you can do help people have positive learning experiences while going through the planning process.”
Soon, Shawn will be turning her focus toward reef restoration and resiliency in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. She will study the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. “I love working with marine planning processes, and I hope to establish mechanisms for regional ocean partnerships as well as coastal and marine spatial planning.” She avers that the skills needed to realize her goals for planning projects are things that she and every other student learn at Antioch.
“Last week, I was telling someone that the skills I learned at Antioch I use every day the ability to work with different groups and mentalities.”
At AUNE, Shawn was eager to learn science and remembers being frustrated by AUNE’s foundational courses, where she had to work with students from very different programs. “Pretty soon I learned that’s the way things get done. Antioch’s approach is designed to train leaders to work with other groups, understand them and see the value of their ideas. I learned that incrementally, in every class. It gets ingrained in you because you have to practice working in a cross-disciplinary environment over and over during your whole tenure there.”
Learning by Doing
Even though Shawn had worked with teams throughout her youth, her goal-setting and ambition come from a self-reliant streak. A studio art major at Oberlin, she dedicated herself to creating art that reflected her vision of the world around her. She brought science into conceptual art, employing, for example, the Fibonacci sequence into an installation piece. She admits to learning best by doing, recognizing her competency, and addressing her weaknesses.
“There were a bunch of little things I wanted to do; ride my bike across the country, live in Alaska, work in the salmon industry,” all of which she accomplished. Then she found herself in California and in need of a job.
Before long, Shawn was loading planes for Federal Express and liked the excitement. “I guess I was good at it because they kept giving me more responsibility,” she says. Liking the company but trying to diversify her experience, she moved back to the East Coast and managed a call center near her childhood home in Massachusetts.
“I had a sense that I could be good at whatever I wanted to do. So I really went after everything, Shawn says. I thought I’d stay with FedEx and get an MBA, but being indoors at the call center was not the best environment for me, and I started thinking about the suits I’d have to wear.”Her dream of the Great Barrier Reef resurfaced while considering graduate schools, and a friend who is a forester introduced her to AUNE.
Shawn knew she wanted to live abroad and do important work, and her determination brought her to Keene. “I couldn’t have gone to any other school and be where I am today. I feel like I’m doing something good for the environment, and not in a prescriptive way, but by bringing people into the process. Antioch New England opened all kinds of doors for me. I grew up in a suburb and didn’t know anybody who studied great apes or worked in the tropics. I didn’t know any scientists. Having the faculty at Antioch believe in me and put me into the position to make contacts opened the whole world to me.”