Mary Katherine “Katy” Gonder, Ph.D., has been named head of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, ECCB, effective Aug. 1.

She previously served as the head of the Department of Biology at Drexel University.

Gonder said she is excited and honored to lead a department with such a strong reputation in the fields related to understanding and preserving the natural world. She hopes to build on the department’s successes and to ensure it continues to create a research, academic and outreach environment that fosters individual excellence and collaboration.  

“I am eagerly anticipating joining the department,” she said. “The Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology faculty conduct highly impactful research and educational activities. Representing the department is an honor, and I am fully committed to advocating for its faculty, staff and students.”

Mary Katherine “Katy” Gonder, Ph.D., was named head of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology effective Aug. 1. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Michael Miller)

Jeffrey W. Savell, Ph.D., vice chancellor and dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences, said Gonder is an exceptional choice to lead the department.

“Dr. Gonder’s research, leadership and mentoring experience make her the ideal leader for the department as it continues to produce research and professionals in fields that are so important to Texas and the world,” he said. “Ecology and conservation biology represent an important link to our quality of life. The department’s work touches everything we do here at the college – agriculture, human and animal health, the environment and our stakeholders’ livelihoods. I look forward to seeing how the department helps shape our future under Dr. Gonder’s guidance.”

A crucial time for people and the planet

Gonder said the department is uniquely positioned to meet the university’s strategic goals to incentivize and promote environmental resilience through research and partnerships. She mentioned conservation biology is both a science and an ethos for sustainability and resiliency.

She is committed to lead the department as an advocate and to facilitate successes for its faculty and students that translate to the land-grant mission. Gonder believes the department is poised to provide important guidance on a global scale during a critical time for the planet and humans.

“As department head, I think the job is to make sure everyone succeeds – the faculty and the students – and that our stakeholders find success in sustainable ways,” she said. “Conservation solutions have to integrate people solutions. Concepts like sustainable agriculture can provide solutions for agriculture but also other essential facets of society like public health and the economy.”

Job growth in ecology and conservation biology

The interdisciplinary research conducted across all levels of biodiversity, from genes to ecosystems, make the department a critical leader for providing science-based expertise for natural resources stewardship.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in fields related to ecology and conservation biology are projected to increase 5% through 2031, Gonder noted. The department’s unique blend of STEM fields like biology and social sciences hold the keys to addressing many social, ecological and economic problems.

“Conservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “Integrating nature, agriculture, human health and cultural vitality are important for providing evidence-based viable solutions to environmental challenges.”

“Conservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Integrating nature, agriculture, human health and cultural vitality are important for providing evidence-based viable solutions to environmental challenges.”

Mary Katherine “Katy” Gonder, Ph.D.

Student success fueled by strong conservation culture

When it comes to students and education, Gonder said the department will continue to focus on creating knowledgeable leaders by integrating classroom instruction, research, study abroad opportunities and fieldwork for students.

The department’s programs provide a vital mix of applied problem-solving and fundamental research in physical, life and social sciences, she said. Flexible degree plans provide students practical career paths in government and the private sector, including non-profit organizations and sustainable development.

Gonder said ecology and conservation biology students are already passionate about the natural world. Diversity of thought presents opportunities for divergent scientific solutions.

She has mentored nine postdoctoral scholar trainees, 11 doctoral students and more than 250 conservation professionals through workshops, internships and field courses.

“Collaboration is vital in a conservation biology department where our goal is to forge sustainable solutions that serve the entire spectrum of stakeholders because we all have a stake in the planet, in food production and balancing environmental and economic sustainability,” she said. “Conservation and collaboration are already encoded in our students’ DNA and the department’s culture.”

Linking conservation with culture  

Gonder said the established culture of excellence within the department will augment her ability to advocate on its behalf. She believes the department has some of the best research and teaching collections and facilities in the nation.

By linking the department to action through scientific research and education, Gonder hopes to extend that conservation culture into the world. She looks forward to the land-grant mission of outreach and believes stakeholders, including Texas landowners, are hungry for science-based solutions related to natural resource stewardship.  

Gonder said she looks forward to defining and refining the department’s outreach and extension mission and goals. In general, the department values the ability to provide environmental education that boosts conservation ethos and action by extending science-based knowledge and expertise to the public and stakeholders in Texas and globally.

Developing and enacting a well-defined and impactful outreach and extension mission and plan will likely involve engagement with conservation organizations and existing Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service programs like the Texas Master Naturalists and state agencies like the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Gonder said AgriLife Extension has an incredible network and platform to connect the department with the public through sustained engagement.

“Texas is a big, ecologically diverse state, and the vast majority of land is privately owned,” she said. “That presents an incredible opportunity for outreach and providing science-based solutions for Texans with stewardship goals. That connection literally turns conservation science into action in ways that are meaningful to the steward but also meaningful to all stakeholders and future generations.”

Gonder’s path to department head

Gonder has been interested in conservation biology since she can remember. Primates became a particular fascination during study as an undergraduate student.  

She has studied a variety of animal species and ecological systems, but her primary focus is on primates and chimpanzees. Her work with primates and chimpanzees began with studying population genetics and has now shifted to understanding how ecology impacts and influences the cultural and genetic history of chimpanzees.

“They were fun to study when I was 19, and interestingly I’ve honestly tried very hard to not study chimpanzees during my life,” she said. “But what I find is that for every single question we answer, there are 10 more questions. They’re even more interesting. It never ends.”

Conservation planning and support has been a focal point of Gonder’s research and teaching career.

She co-founded the Central African Biodiversity Alliance and directed the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program and Cameroon Biodiversity Protection Program with research stations in Mbam Djerem National Park in Cameroon, Moka Wildlife Center and seasonal stations on Bioko, an island of Equatorial Guinea.

Her involvement stems from her academic research programs there and conservation studies related to wild-meat markets and wildlife trafficking in those African regions. The programs are partnered with conservationists, park rangers and local policymakers. 

Gonder’s research has been awarded more than $9.3 million from various sources, including federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, international organizations like the United Nations Development Program, and corporate foundations including ExxonMobil, Noble Energy and National Geographic. She has collaborated with more than 20 universities in the U.S., Africa, Europe and Asia.

She serves on the United Nations’ Great Ape Survival Project, the Scientific Commission and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature specialist groups on primates, great apes and marine turtles. She is a senior research fellow at the Center for Tropical Research at the University of California Los Angeles and serves as a technical adviser for the Ebo Forest Research Project and the Congo Basin Institute.

Gonder believes the breadth of her work and experience ties well into the department’s mission and goals and that its faculty and students are in a position to change the world for the better.

“There is incredible potential to build relationships and collaboration in areas like agriculture, public health, economics and the environment that link to the research, educational opportunities and community engagement we provide,” she said, “Since I am new to Texas A&M, I am looking forward to learning from and working with the department faculty to leverage all that we can offer to the college, university, Texas and the world.”

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