Alumnus works to conserve biodiversity in Papua New Guinea

July 13, 2011

After receiving his undergraduate degree, Bill Thomas took some time off to see the world and discovered a passion for wild lands and a desire to protect them.

Thomas came to believe that the key to conservation is the relationship between traditional peoples and biodiversity, a realization that led him to Arizona State University’s cultural anthropology doctoral program. Southern Crowned Pigeon Download Full Image

He studied with sociocultural anthropologist Jim Eder, professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and professor emeritus Lyle Steadman, the first anthropologist to contact and work with the Hewa, an indigenous people of Papua New Guinea.

Steadman introduced Thomas to the culture and arranged for him to travel to their Pacific island nation for his master’s research.

“I experienced the wilderness that is the homeland of the Hewa, and it has drawn me back year after year,” enthused Thomas, who obtained his doctorate from ASU in 1999.

Now, Thomas is a leader in protecting and promoting biodiversity in Papua New Guinea. He is also the director of the New Jersey School of Conservation, the environmental field campus for Montclair State University, where each year 7,000 students, ranging from middle-school to graduate level, engage in environmental education and research opportunities.

As he has done for several years, Thomas will spend his summer in Papua New Guinea’s Central Range conducting ethno-ecological research and learning from the Hewa, who farm the area’s lower mountain forests.

Thomas' reputation as an effective proponent of biodiversity conservation has led to incredible opportunities.

In 2008, Thomas was part of a team of researchers that discovered and documented over 50 new species in Papua New Guinea. Coordinated by Conservation International, Papua New Guinea’s Institute for Biological Research and A Rocha International, the expedition covered the Nakanai and Muller Mountains and the upper Strickland Basin. The team logged new finds of spiders, frogs and geckos, illustrating the locale’s rich biodiversity and pristine environment.

Conservation International tapped Thomas to partner on the Forest Stewards initiative, a bio-cultural conservation project that acknowledges the connection between tradition and biodiversity. It teams Papua New Guinea’s most remote societies with external institutions to encourage communities to participate in resource conservation decisions and compensate them for preserving their cultures and languages, as well as globally significant forests.

Thomas finds working with the local naturalists the most rewarding aspect of his efforts. “The look in their eyes when they see that I ‘get it’ and the joy they have in representing their community are wonderful,” he said.

A member of the Explorers Club, Thomas was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for his development of best practices regarding the use of indigenous knowledge to predict the impact of human activity on biodiversity. Using birds – a recognized indicator of biodiversity – he created a methodology for gathering data that makes traditional knowledge accessible to western scientists, encouraging cross-cultural discussion and collaboration.

Thomas calls this the foundation of his conservation work in Papua New Guinea and hopes it will become the basis for participation of indigenous people in the conservation of their lands. He seems to be getting his wish. This summer he will test 70 new teachers, or forest stewards, to expand the Forest Stewards initiative throughout the Laigaip River drainage. This will spread the project from the Hewa lowlands to the highlands of Mt. Kaijende, near the source of the river, and bring four new ethnic/language groups into the program.

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Professor to help find solutions for state challenges

July 13, 2011

There is no question that Arizona is at a crossroads full of challenges and opportunities as the state celebrates its centennial and prepares for the next 100 years. At the forefront of this exploration is the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and, specifically, the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy. In its inaugural class of Flinn-Brown Fellows this year, 25 people from around the state were selected to participate in the leadership academy in order to learn about the issues facing our state then participate and collaborate in creating solutions to improve Arizona.

ASU associate professor David Garcia with the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College recently graduated from the academy. He was one of a handful of educators to be selected as a fellow, with most other positions going to political figures, attorneys and local business professionals. David Garcia meets with grad students Download Full Image

“I was deeply honored,” Garcia says of the selection. “At that point, I had a great idea that this was going to be an amazing opportunity and was only hoping that I could be part of it. Now that I’ve been going through it, I’m really blown away by the quality of the people they selected.”

The diversity among Flinn-Brown Fellows is designed to bring together many different perspectives on issues in Arizona in order to create more comprehensive solutions.

“The most critical issues that confront Arizona today are complicated, intertwined, and hard to resolve without strong cooperation,” said Nancy Welch, director of the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership.

Flinn-Brown Fellows attend seminars and complete studies on a variety of issues facing the state in order to expand their awareness and knowledge on such challenges in order to encourage these individuals to be more actively engaged in the civic process as policy advisors or political figures. Garcia has already gotten a head-start on this aspect of civic engagement while working with State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal.

Huppenthal, who was a former state senator, approached Garcia following his election to work on several research projects and assist in the transition from state senator to superintendent. This unique opportunity allowed Garcia to use his research in an attempt to encourage changes to the current educational system in Arizona, a goal the ASU associate professor has been working towards since he formed the Arizona Educational Policy Initiative in 2003.

“One good thing about being a professor and coming from this position is that I’m independent,” Garcia said. “I don’t have the obligation to look at the world a specific way; my obligation is to do research and put that in front of policy makers.”

Garcia continues to actively conduct research on public policy and accountability, and will be publishing additional research studies this summer. As a professor, he spends much of his time teaching and guiding students working toward their doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies. The Ph.D. program emphasizes education policy analysis, provides specializations in seven related disciplines and topics, and offers opportunities to conduct applied research.

Garcia’s concerns about some of Arizona’s challenges are guiding his current research and moving forward, he would like to look at the impact of standardized testing and rates of college readiness within Maricopa County.

“In particular, it really isn’t just standardized testing that can be problematic but the idea that in many aspects we don’t have the quality assessments we need for effective education. As a result, many of the teachers are working with limited information to make important education decisions about students,” he said.

His ultimate goal is to remain a trusted education researcher while continuing to impact public policy decisions in Arizona and beyond.

“Over time, maintaining credibility in your methods and maintaining credibility in your words and actions helps put you in the position where folks can look upon what you say and look at your contributions in a way that they see them as credible.”

“Shaping tomorrow together” is the axiom for the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership, and Garcia has the talent, skills and experience to help address Arizona’s education issues. Garcia has laid the foundation for his work in education policy and leadership and it makes sense that the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership selected David Garcia as part of the inaugural class of Flinn-Brown fellows.

ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College offers a range of challenging undergraduate and graduate education programs that prepare highly qualified and successful teachers, leaders and researchers at all four ASU campuses, school districts statewide and online.

Story by Lauren Proper,