Conserving Futures

Executive-in-Residence helps students see unconventional paths to careers

Sara Parker Pauley believes “we are all in this together.”

Although she was referring to conservation of our natural resources, it’s also the way she feels about giving back to students in related fields from her position as the current director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and recently selected director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. She will take the helm at the MDC Nov. 1.

Pauley was on campus Oct. 5 and 6 as the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ 50th Robert O. Reich Executive-in-Residence. The program brings industry leaders to the College to share knowledge and experiences with students, faculty and staff. Through class lectures, roundtable discussions, one-on-one meetings and other informal interactions, students learn first-hand about career paths and choices. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Executive-in-Residence program.

Looking at the bigger picture

As part of her visit, Pauley also delivered a public lecture, “SH2OW-ME Water Quality,” about the state of water quality in Missouri – “a big-picture perspective,” she said.

As director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Pauley leads efforts to protect air, land and water; preserve unique natural and historic places; and provide recreational and learning opportunities for the public.

Pauley said she has been blessed with great mentors, and she welcomed the opportunity to give back to the next generation in her field by participating in the Executive-in-Residence program.

“It’s the least I can do to encourage and hopefully inspire the next generation,” she said.

Jack Jones, interim director of the School of Natural Resources, welcomed the opportunity for students and faculty to network with a mentor in the field.

“Director Pauley is a leader in conservation and environmental protection in Missouri. These topics are central to research, education and outreach in The School of Natural Resources, so it was a perfect fit for her to interact with our students and faculty as a visiting professional,” he said. “We have benefited from her leadership at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and look forward to collaboration when she becomes director of the Missouri Department of Conservation.”

Pauley’s message to students during her visit was to follow your passion, be open to opportunities – and not assume that you can only have a career in natural resources by taking a traditional path. She sees the future of the industry as an integration of different fields and skills, including communication, economics, law and social sciences.

“It’s an era of collaboration and innovation,” she said.

To that end, Pauley applauded the MU School of Natural Resources for its recent move to integrate its curriculum and dissolve the separate departments. Pauley has taught the Natural Resource Policy and Administration course at SNR.

Not a ‘natural’ path

Pauley’s own career path is reflective of this integration. She received her undergraduate degree in journalism (Pauley pictured herself working for an outdoor-based magazine at the time) and then went on to law school, with the idea of being an environmental lawyer. Both of her degrees are from Mizzou.

Besides serving as the director of MDNR since 2010, and previously as deputy director of MDNR, she has worked as a project manager for D.J. Case & Associates, a natural resources communications firm that works with federal and state agencies on policy development, marketing and environmental compliance; for national conservation non-profits; and as chief of staff to former Missouri House Speaker Steve Gaw. Pauley began her career working for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“I just wanted to figure out how to make a career out of the outdoors,” she said. “For me, like so many others, it connected with me from the time I was a child.” Pauley grew up camping, fishing and hiking. Her grandmother especially was an avid outdoorswoman.

“I idolized her,” Pauley said. “She taught me to see the outdoors as a grand place of adventure.”

The job at hand

One of the biggest challenges Pauley sees in natural resources is messaging effectively to the public – essentially, why they should care. She said the industry must better emphasize the tie between conserving natural resources, economic vitality and human health. Aging infrastructure for drinking and waste water, for example, is a looming issue that affects everyone.

On the conservation side, she said communication again is critical, along with research.

“We need to better tell the story of the relevance of protecting our natural world – that it is tightly intertwined with our very quality of life,” she said.

Her appointment as director of the Missouri Department of Conservation marks the first time a woman has been named to the position.

“I think that does matter,” Pauley said. “It sends an important statement that conservation is about all of us.”

She is quick to point out that there are amazing women who have paved the way before her in conservation in the state of Missouri.

She sees much potential collaboration with the University of Missouri in research and extension in areas such as water quality, water resources and soil health in her new position. But her first order of business when she takes the helm at the Department of Conservation is to spend time visiting with her staff and stakeholders.

“I’m interested in hearing from all folks,” Pauley said. “We are all in this together.”