Robin Martino, PhD candidateEnvironmental Studies
Juggling Family and Work in Africa
Robin Martino came to Antioch University New England (AUNE) in 2003 because she wanted to study with Beth Kaplin, a female scientist with a family, who was working in Africa. Robin knows just what that’s like now-she has a six-year-old son. “The reality of field research in Africa is a little daunting with a little guy and a husband,” she said. “That’s why working with a woman was so important to me. Beth also balances a family with her work.”
It’s hard to imagine Robin daunted by anything. She has spent years doing research and development work in Africa and in another intimidating location, Washington, D.C.
Her PhD research compares the effects of human disturbance on tropical forest from two different buffer-zone land-use types, tea plantations and pine tree plantations. In southwest Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park, she studies how seeds are dispersed in the tropical forest adjacent to these two buffer zones. She records the type of primates that visit the large, seed-bearing trees on the forest’s edge, what they do with the seeds, and what’s happening underneath these trees. Do more seeds germinate in forest edges adjacent to tea plantations than those adjacent to pine plantations? Are there more primates in one place than in the other? Ultimately, how do these buffer zones affect the tree species?
Robin’s hope is that her research will lead to science-based recommendations for managing these areas. “If we have a better idea of buffer zones, it will facilitate conservation of many other species-not just large-seeded canopy trees-through management, to support regeneration of the trees,” she said.
A Flair for Wildlife Research
Robin grew up in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts and studied wildlife biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she liked the hands-on approach of many of her courses. “I was assisting with the immobilization of black bears and, for an undergrad, that was a pretty awesome experience and exposure,” she said.
She joined the Peace Corps and, from 1996 to 1999, worked in forested volcanoes straddling the borders of three countries: southern Uganda, northern Rwanda and Zaire, which was on the verge of becoming the Democratic Republic of Congo. Central Africa was still in turmoil after the Rwandan genocide. “I was thrown into international conservation and politics at a young age,” she said. From there she went to work for USAID, the federal agency overseeing foreign aid, for four years in Washington and then a year and a half with the USAID mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Meanwhile, the fierce competition in Washington and the esteem for education among NGOs convinced her to get her PhD.
Reconciling Africa and Family
She always envisioned returning to Africa with her family to do research. “But reality set in-it’s challenging to do field research,” she said. She considered pursuing her research closer to home, in Costa Rica. “At the same time, I realized that my connections and my passion were really tied to the African landscape. And not just the ecology, but the people and the institutions. I wanted to be in something that I really loved and that I felt connected to.” So Africa it was.
Robin has been back to Rwanda twice since her son, Cole, was born. The first time was for her AUNE service learning project, at the National University of Rwanda. “That reconnected me with the colleagues I had worked with in Uganda,” she said.
In March 2011, she went to Rwanda to begin her PhD research. Her husband, Mark Amaral, and their son went over in June, and the family lived in a tent for the summer. “I was anxious, but it was easy,” Robin said. “They’re very adaptable.”
“It’s a struggle being a female in science. It’s a constant balancing. No matter what, family time is difficult to balance. I’m a mom when I’m home, so it’s hard to go away on a trip. My husband and I strive for a level playing field, but it’s not easy. It takes discipline and little quirky strategies, but it is possible.”
With her degree in hand, Robin would like to return to the work she left a dozen years ago, for several reasons. She can offer her wide experience as a consultant and a field researcher as well as work with NGOs, government and the Peace Corps. She wants to help increase the effectiveness and sustainability of conservation funding, which, funneled through large U.S. organizations, is very susceptible to political forces.
And she wants to bring more collaboration and capacity-building to the conservation field. “If I can collaborate with Rwandans, build their professionalism-that’s really important to me,” she said. “Real sustainability lies with building the capacity of host country nationals.”