UW News

August 12, 2016

Q&A: Phil Levin joins UW, The Nature Conservancy in new role

UW News

Phil Levin

Phil Levin

Marine ecologist Phil Levin will be the first to say his new job move is a little unusual. A former senior scientist at NOAA Fisheries, Levin recently began a joint role at the University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy. He is one of only two “professors of practice” at the UW and will also tackle a new lead science role at the Conservancy.

For Levin, who for 17 years was a marine fish guy at NOAA, rubbing shoulders with forestry professors and students — and participating in large-scale environmental initiatives far from the sea — these are perhaps surprising next steps, but they so perfectly align with Levin’s vision for the future of conservation.

UW Today sat down with Levin to find out why he took this job and what he hopes to accomplish.

This is a new joint role with UW and the Conservancy. What are you tackling first?

PL: Right now I’m just getting up to speed with both organizations. I’m thinking about the ways we can connect the rich capabilities at the UW with the Conservancy’s needs. I’m also trying to figure out which of the Conservancy’s priorities UW can best come in quickly and make a difference. It’s really about building connections, collaboration and leveraging all of the wonderful work that’s happening at the university, toward the goal of conservation for nature and people.

Where do you sit?

PL: Half of the time I’ll be at the Conservancy’s Belltown office, and the other half will be in my office and lab in Bloedel Hall.

What does “professor of practice” mean to you?

PL: I think the “practice” part of the role informs conservation and improves the status of nature and people. The “professor” part is interesting, because when you think of a professor — besides having a tweed jacket with elbow patches — it’s someone who is educating, mentoring, inspiring, and someone who is working with undergraduates and graduate students doing research.

And what about your lead scientist role at the Conservancy?

PL: I hope to be a voice of science, to highlight where science can provide answers to our most pressing conservation issues and to act as a scientific adviser. I envision providing a synthetic overview across different teams — land, water, ocean, cities and climate. And, I’d like to be able to connect the dots across all the programs to yield better conservation outcomes.

Why are you excited about this joint role?

Levin, front right, leads a tour with the Conservancy's board members.

Levin, front right, leads a tour with the Conservancy’s board members.The Nature Conservancy

PL: Being an applied scientist in the real world means you have to answer the questions that resource managers or policymakers ask of you. I also believe that can make you only reactive. The nice thing with the UW component is we can begin to answer the questions that have not yet been asked. That makes scientists proactive leaders rather than followers. The trick is to balance the current needs — the questions being asked — with also doing new science so that we can come up with innovative solutions to emerging problems while also solving the problems of today. I’m excited to bring my practical perspective to the undergraduate and graduate educational experience, but also to use this as a training ground for the next generation of conservation scientists.

Why did you decide to leave NOAA?

PL: I felt very comfortable and happy where I was, so therefore I left. I thought, you know what, I think there’s an opportunity to be creative and innovative, and it just seemed time for a change. And that’s why the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences made sense. It’s so different from my background and I’m so different from the other faculty that it’s an opportunity to be super creative and productive in ways I can do best when I’m a fish out of water.

What are you taking from your work at NOAA?

PL: My time at NOAA profoundly impacted me. First, when I started at NOAA, I really had a lot to learn, and I quickly learned that you learn more by listening than by talking. Also, the culture, particularly in our program, was highly interactive and highly collaborative — at a senior level. Being at NOAA was like the best part of being a graduate student: You’re constantly riffing with people, trying to work together, experiencing the cool, creative energy that happens in graduate school. The only difference is people leave earlier than when I was in grad school because they have to pick up their kids. I also began to understand what applied science really means, rather than what I said it meant before I was a NOAA scientist. In other words, I began to understand how science could actually make a difference.

You already have quite a few projects underway with UW faculty and students. Will those continue?

PL: Everything with the university I hope will just grow. The biggest ongoing project right now that is still in the growth phase is the Ocean Modeling Forum. To me, there are a lot of different ways the mission of Ocean Modeling Forum and the Conservancy overlap and can help each other.

Can you give some examples of the kinds of projects you’ll work on?

PL: The Conservancy has a project called Emerald Edge, a reference to the coastal rainforests that go from Southeast Alaska to the Olympic Peninsula. A lot of my work lately has been up in British Columbia in Haida Gwaii archipelago. I know I’ll get involved with that project in some way, shape or form. I’ll also continue to work with Melissa Poe at Washington Sea Grant, looking at the potential impacts of ocean acidification on culture, particularly tribes that are deeply dependent culturally and historically on shellfish. I imagine myself continuing to work at the boundary of the natural and social sciences — understanding the importance of nature to people and trying to develop ways we can save nature, both for its intrinsic value but also for people who depend on it.

You’ve been on campus for a little while now. What do you like about it?

PL: Along Rainier Vista, there’s something so inspiring to me about looking at the university up that stretch. In a way, that particular spot is so perfect for this job. On one hand, I look at the university and everything that it symbolizes, and get inspired by that. And then if I turn around and I look at Mount Rainier, I see the majesty of nature. Both are right there. It’s perfect for this job.

(Editor’s note: In case you were wondering, Levin did purchase a tweed jacket after he accepted this position — just in case he needs it).


Contact Levin at pslevin@uw.edu.