Kelly Knutson ’15, who is now based in Troy, N.Y., is a field organizer for the National Audubon Society. You would likely catch him wearing a flannel shirt, coffee in hand, advocating for renewable energy or foraging for mushrooms.
How did you come to find your passion for the environment and biology?
From a young age, I recognized how intertwined our lives were to the environment. My dad was the classic Teddy Roosevelt conservationist, who loved to hunt and keep our public lands wild. With him, I’d spend summers on the lake and chase butterflies down the trails in complete awe of the natural world and all the little critters within it. My mom playfully jokes that I’ve always been the questioning type, yearning to discover why things function like they do. My parents fostered a culture of scientific learning, which led me to choose to study biology.
What were you involved with on campus?
I’ll admit I was the stereotypical overinvolved Cobber. It all started freshman year at Cobber Expo, where I joined Student Environmental Alliance and advocated for a more sustainable culture on Concordia’s campus. Later that year, the president, Nathaniel Cook, organized an alternative spring break called a High Impact Learning Trip (HILT) that explored mountaintop removal in rural Kentucky. From there, I attended the following HILT to Portland, Ore., which examined food movements with Kelsey Kava, who now resides there. These experiences were so pivotal in opening my eyes to a broad range of environmental issues as well as seeing how organizations and their respective communities where advancing regional solutions. Feeling charged, I organized the 2014 trip with Courtney Backen and John Amundson to the Everglades of southern Florida to experience how climate change was already impacting vulnerable wetland habitats and our coastal urban communities.
I also coordinated the eco-representative program, was a teaching assistant in evolutionary biology courses, managed the biology department’s natural history museum, sang in Concordia’s Chapel Choir, wrote an opinion column for The Concordian and co-led a campus activist organization called Cobbers for the Common Interest.
What did you do postgrad?
Thanks to experience acquired through Concordia, I was able to land several in-person interviews with renown nonprofits throughout the country and an opportunity arose to work for NextGen Climate (now NextGen America), a nonpartisan environmental nonprofit focused on implementing solutions, such as wind and solar, to aid in mitigating carbon emissions in communities across New Hampshire.
How did you find yourself in your new position at the Audubon Society?
I believe what landed me the position at Audubon was having on-the-ground experience in engaging untraditional audiences, like churches, small businesses and agricultural groups, on the issue of climate change. Bringing people together, despite differing political ideologies, to agree upon bipartisan solutions is huge and it sometimes requires me to facilitate really difficult discussions amongst key decision-makers. While I loved living in New Hampshire, a place full of flanneled folks like Minnesota, I’m so glad to call New York my home and work for a well-known conservation science-based organization like National Audubon Society. I definitely took risks by moving my life halfway across the country from family and friends, but it totally paid off. I’ve even managed to meet other Cobbers that happily reside here, too!
What is the mission of Audubon? Who/what does their work benefit?
At Audubon, we believe that what’s good for birds is also good for people. Our mission is to protect birds and the places they need, now and in the future. By doing so, we safeguard habitats that we all need, whether to recreate in or filter our water resources through. In New York, our membership reaches more than 50,000 people across 27 Audubon chapters and includes your novice or experienced birder, backyard gardener, nature enthusiast, science nerd and more.
Audubon meets birds’ needs in the places where people live. By planting a native garden, you’re not only helping birds – you’re also helping to educate communities on the importance of doing so. You’ll often hear me say, YOU are what hope looks like to a bird and that each of us can be a positive solution for change in our own backyard.
In order to demand proactive change, we collaborate on issues ranging from implementing clean energy resolutions, lobbying for environmental funding and protecting critical habitats like the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.
What is a day-in-the-life like for you at work?
I coordinate our local engagement campaigns that further encourage our grassroots network to take action on climate. From the wooded forest of the Adirondack Mountains to the coastal beaches of Long Island, I work with a variety of communities to empower their voice in the political process and train constituents to advocate for bipartisan climate solutions that benefit bird species at risk by a warming planet. While I work on the local grassroots level, you’ll find other staff at Audubon working on the grass tops, which are our statewide or national policy.
Depending on the season and current affairs, a typical day may shift based on migration patterns or on pressuring issues that involve birds. For example, in the spring and fall, I encourage homeowners to plant native species that provide food, shelter and safe passage for birds, especially in urban dwellings. Reversely, in the summer and winter, we partner with bird clubs to conduct citizen science surveys that test predictions of where bluebirds and nuthatches will populate in response to a changing climate. All year round, I work with local municipalities to encourage responsibly sited renewable projects that strive to lessen the negative impacts onto birds by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
What skills at Concordia prepared you for what you are doing now?
The biggest skill Concordia taught me was how to be an effective leader, which was developed in courses, work-study, campus initiatives, studying abroad and more. Throughout my time, I was fortunate to add some incredible and unique opportunities to my resume that distinguished me from other applicants while in the search for a career. The May internship was critical in crafting how I articulated my leadership experiences to future employers and allowed me to maximize my efforts by collaborating with other student groups on campus.
Which professor(s) inspired you? What made them inspirational?
Dr. Bryan Bishop became my advisor after I took his 8 a.m. Monday/Wednesday ecology class. He never told me what classes I should take; rather he encouraged me to explore different subjects – as long as they filled my core requirements, of course. In 2013, he won the Student Government Association Distinguished Service Award, which I nominated him for. While I never took the course of his specialty, entomology, I enrolled in everything else he taught. Exams were never easy breezy, but I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from him that I actively apply to my work today. Some things I didn’t even realize the lessons I learned until after graduation. Recently, I was joking with him over email that while taking his class on geographic information systems (GIS), I never thought I’d use it after graduation but I was sooo wrong. It is a great skill desired by many employers and I can’t escape them as detailed maps help to inform my work each day. My favorite memory, however, is going on a May Seminar to the deserts of the southwest with a small group from the biology department. We examined numerous arid landscapes within the National Park System and studied how organisms adapted to survive in such warm temperatures. How many students get to say they road-tripped and primitively camped with one of the professors that inspired them the most? I can!
How does “BREWing” still happen in your everyday life?
Many agree that climate change is the greatest threat that we are facing today. I actively apply becoming responsibly engaged in the world through my work by advocating for clean energy and the protection of habitats that greatly aids in mitigating both New York’s local and statewide carbon footprint.
Concordia shaped me to think critically about pressing issues through experiential learning and field research, as well as to lead with creative solutions that help make our planet a more livable place for generations to come.
– Kelly Knutson '15
Do you have a favorite book at the moment? How has new knowledge inspired the way you think/live?
I just finished reading “Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery” by Caren Cooper, which thoughtfully challenges who can conduct research in a way that collectively attributes to our understanding of the natural world.
Since starting at Audubon, I’ve grown increasingly fond of engaging untraditional audiences in the scientific process by encouraging them to share observations they experience throughout their everyday lives. I’m always looking to refine hopeful messaging that fosters meaningful campaigns; however, many volunteers feel they lack the appropriate knowledge that often hinders them to get further involved.
Note – you don’t have to be an expert in climate change, birds or the environment to make a difference. I firmly believe that we need to adopt new cultural norms that make the participation in science more accessible through people’s hobbies like gardening, bird watching, hiking, etc.
For more than a century, Audubon has effectively carried out this mission through annual Christmas Bird Counts, Climate Watch surveys, Hummingbirds at Home, local programming and more. It’s incredible with the advancement of technology that folks can record findings from the field and then have access to others’ entries at their fingertips. Citizen science is truly breaking barriers of where and by whom research is conducted.
What is your favorite type of mushroom and why?
That is probably the most difficult question while also being the most humorous. While the kingdom fungi is incredibly diverse and fascinating, I’d have to say morels are my favorite to not only forage for but to eat from the wild. I always carry an identification book with me, as many mushrooms are poisonous and unsafe to digest. When I was a teaching assistant for BIOL 122, Evolution and Diversity, the fungi section was always my favorite to engage students in. Also, as a final project for my GIS course, I created a map based on vegetation and precipitation levels on where you’d likely have the best success in foraging for morels. You can totally utilize coursework to satisfy personal pleasures, amirite?!
Danyel Moe '17 is a content specialist at Concordia.