Meet Caitlin Burke
Caitlin Burke’s research has moved her beyond the forest – in order to save it. She expects to complete her PhD in Forestry and Environmental Resources in two years, but her degree will be a blend of many different disciplines and three different universities in the area.
Her undergraduate career began at Virginia Tech with a fairly standard program in Wildlife Science in the College of Natural Resources. That changed when she took a capstone course in the role of science in natural resources. She says, “It was the first time all of our eyes were opened to the role of public policy in conservation.”
After graduating, she worked at the Wildlife Society on an internship that quickly became a permanent position. This gave her experience in the traditional approach of most environmental groups to influencing policy – litigation and lobbying. Burke says that she learned a lot about the policy process and the people involved at the national level. Most importantly, “I learned that I could take good science and translate it into something useful.”
Her research at NC State has been a study of the contrast between the activist style approach endorsed by organizations such as The Sierra Club (for an example, see their Legislative Tracker), and the more collaborative approach endorsed by agencies such as The Nature Conservancy. There is a great deal of controversy over which approach is best, and Burke’s research has focused on the effectiveness of each in keeping the public involved at the state and local level.
In pursuit of this goal, Burke has explored the wealth and breadth of offerings at NCSU and the surrounding region. At NCSU, she has taken classes in the Forestry, Natural Resources, Statistics, Public Administration, Sociology, and Communications departments. At UNC, she has taken courses in Public Policy, City & Regional Planning, and Public Administration. Finally, she has carried out an independent study with a professor in the Institute of Public Policy at Duke. Burke feels that the diversity of educational offerings is one of the real strengths of the Triangle region: “With three universities and numerous colleges, there are always talks, seminars and resources like libraries and researchers…” Another strong support has been her advisor Dr. Toddi Steelman, whom Burke describes as “a real goldmine.” Steelman has advised her on academic matters, and also introduced her to people and organizations that will be of value throughout her career. They have co-authored a paper and Burke has reviewed grant proposals “which is helpful, as eventually I may be writing my own.”
In her spare time, Burke likes to do crossword puzzles and just finished training for a half-marathon. Another hobby has been positively affected by her move to North Carolina -- her love of cooking. Burke says, “Despite the heat, I love North Carolina summers because of the abundance of fresh, LOCAL fruits and vegetables.” She has bought a share in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program which partners RTI International with NC State’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the NC Cooperative Extension Service to connect food consumers with local farms. The local CSA program provides her a portion of their harvest on a regular basis and recommends that anyone else interested check the wealth of available offerings.
While the years leading up to a final dissertation should not be described as “easy,” Burke has cleared out her own path in this forest. She is already looking ahead to possible work with an NGO out West and a career in conservation.