Interview with a NatCapper: Lisa Mandle

By Ashley Overbeek | September 6th, 2018

We sit down with Senior Scientist Lisa Mandle to talk about science, cross-cultural communication, and a hope for carbon-neutral teleporting.

Question: Let’s start simple: what’s your role at NatCap?

Answer: I am a Senior Scientist, based at NatCap’s Stanford Hub. I lead our sustainable development planning outcome, with a focus on infrastructure planning and development. I am also working, with collaborators at Stanford and beyond, to integrate links between nature and human health into our approaches and tools.

Q: How did you become interested in a natural capital-based approach?

A: I spent a long time dreaming of being an ethnobotanist who studied wild medicinal plants, so I was interested in connections between people and nature even before I heard the terms “natural capital” and “ecosystem services.” The first time I heard those terms was in an undergrad class, when a professor mentioned Taylor Rickett’s work on wild pollinators’ contribution to coffee production in Costa Rica. I’d been frustrated by discussions in my environmental science classes that framed conservation primarily as trading off the needs (or wants) of people against protecting the environment. I felt like something was missing, but couldn’t really articulate what it was. Having a word, “ecosystem services,” to capture that missing piece – that nature underpins human well-being, and conservation can be in the interest not just of people who care about protecting iconic species or places – was really exciting.

Q: How have you leveraged your past experiences and background to support your role at NatCap?

A: I learned so much from my PhD advisor, Tamara Ticktin at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, about use-driven research – research that has practical, decision-relevant applications and advances basic scientific understanding. As a doctoral student (in Botany, with a specialization in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology), I was fortunate to be able to work with two fantastic NGOs in India (the Keystone Foundation and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE)) both of which work closely with indigenous communities and in support of the same intertwined goals of improving livelihoods, equity and the environment that drive many of us at NatCap. So I not only got valuable scientific training in research methods, quantitative modeling, and writing that continue to be useful in my work at NatCap, but the experience of working with people from diverse backgrounds, with different values and value systems, which has been just as important in NatCap work.

Q: How has cross-cultural communication been useful in your work in abroad, such as in Latin America and India?

A: In my experience, cross-cultural communication is as import to working with people in different countries and cultures, as it is for working with people from different disciplines or sectors, for example, road engineers or investors. In any case, I think starting by listening is really important, listening and asking questions to learn what is important to people, and the challenges they face. This isn’t unique to me, of course; this approach is fundamental to how NatCap operates – we don’t approach problems as if we are here to provide the one right answer. Instead we try to understand people’s perspectives and values first and then provide information that helps them find solutions and navigate trade-offs among the different things they – collectively or as sub-groups – care about.

Q: What projects are you currently working on?

A: I am currently working on a book (along with many other NatCappers and friends of NatCap) that showcases the wide range of policy and finance mechanisms being used around the world to secure or enhance natural capital in support of inclusive, green development. This includes everything from water funds to impact investing in green infrastructure for stormwater retention to wetlands mitigation banking. I am also working on integrating health outcomes in our approaches and tools, especially focusing on water-borne and mosquito-borne diseases. As part of this, I am working with the PRO-Agua project team, led by Adrian Vogl, to understand how changes in land management in Amazon – for example, from the expansion of mining and agriculture – may impact mosquito-borne disease risk.

Q: What is your biggest challenge at work?

A: One of the most rewarding parts of working at NatCap – working with people in so many different places – also creates one of the biggest challenges: I think we get the best work done when we are in the same place, talking (and eating and drinking) together in person. But of course, that’s often not possible. Skype and Zoom are a big help (though sometimes also a big pain), but I look forward to the invention of carbon-neutral teleporting!

Q: Would you share a fun memory of classic NatCap work?

A: My best memories are of time spent with NatCap friends in beautiful places: wading through mangroves to gorgeous beaches in southern Myanmar while learning from local community members about the ecosystems there (and later getting our van stuck in the mud…); hiking in South Africa and seeing the incredible, unique plant diversity there; and accidentally crashing the set of “Survivor: Cambodia”.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing about working at NatCap?

A: Without a doubt, it’s getting to work with really great people. I’m sure it sounds clichéd, but that’s the truth. My NatCap colleagues don’t just care deeply about what they do (and are good at it, too), they also really care about each other. Whether I’m walking into the Stanford office on a normal Tuesday, or into an unfamiliar meeting room thousands of miles from home, when I see another NatCapper, I know I’m in the company of someone thoughtful, creative, and fun.

Lisa and Nirmal Bhagabati from NatCap WWF. Photo by Stacie Wolny.

Interviewer Ashley Overbeek is a Stanford Earth Systems co-term (’19) and Communications Intern for the Natural Capital Project.