by Kaye Bennett

There is a lot of talk these days about professional women who are trying to find a balance between career and family. Karen Carney ’93 could be the poster child for what she calls the “non-linear career path,” a hallmark of people who alter the pace and intensity of their careers to best suit their family’s needs.  A Stanford-trained Ph.D. scientist who has worked for the U.S. government, environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academia, and the private sector, Carney recently decided to take a two-year “sabbatical” to stay home with her two small children until both are in elementary school.  So far, she’s very happy about that decision, and she credits her willingness to take the risk to lessons she learned at Kalamazoo College.

A native of Livonia, Michigan, Carney came to K to study biology and play soccer.  Both endeavors have played an important role in her life since K, she says.

Soccer, Carney says, was a central part of her K experience.  Likewise, Carney was a central part of soccer through her years at K—so much so, in fact, that she was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.  Among the accomplishments noted in that induction:  Carney was All-MIAA first team all four years she played for K; MIAA most valuable player in 1990; All-American second team in 1991; All-Mideast Regional first team in 1990 and 1992; and team captain in 1992.  She holds the school record for career assists, the second-place school record for goals in a single game, and is one of five members of the “40/40 Club,” for a career 47 goals and 51 assists.  Soccer taught her, Carney says, that “I like to lead, but not to be isolated.  Being part of a team is really important to me.”  That bit of self-knowledge has helped her make career decisions along the road.

Carney was interested in nature and science from a young age, but she became inspired to build her career in science through her interactions with Professor of Biology Paul Sotherland.  She found Sotherland’s classes and labs highly engaging, and he mentored her during a freshman-year internship.  Carney built on that experience and did a junior-year internship at Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) in California, reaffirming her interest in natural history and birds.

After graduating from K, Carney spent six years working as what she calls an “itinerant field biologist and ornithologist.”  She was hired by academic researchers and NGOs to conduct field work for three- to six-month stretches at far-flung locations, including California, Central and South America, and the Antarctic.  She worked on a variety of issues in this phase of her life.  The focus of her early work was on avian natural history and conservation.  In the Antarctic, between 1996 and 1998, Carney began looking more broadly at ecosystems and climate change; she was part of a team examining the impact of climate change on the reproductive success of penguins and other sea birds.  She says it was a fabulous time, but by age 26, she was ready to move on.  Being a field researcher was exciting, but she longed for new challenges and more responsibility.  Moving constantly also became an issue. “There was no sense of being part of a community,” Carney says.

Carney decided it was time to settle down and get her Ph.D.  For that, she went to Stanford.  There she studied ecosystem ecology, looking specifically at how land use and plant diversity in the tropics affect the amount of carbon and nitrogen stored by forests, which can be critical in assessing the contribution of land use to climate change.

After obtaining her doctorate, Carney landed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) near Washington, D.C., to continue her work on climate change.  At SERC she examined the response of ecosystems to the CO2 humans add to the atmosphere.  She found that soils, instead of absorbing much of this additional carbon and slowing climate change, can actually lose carbon under conditions of elevated CO2 and accelerate the problem.  Carney’s husband, Taylor Ricketts (whom she had met in the Antarctic) had also landed a job in the D.C. area, at the World Wildlife Fund.

While at SERC, Carney secured job offers from two well-regarded research universities, but she says she “just wasn’t sure academia would be a good fit.”  Before she took the academic track, she wanted to try something more applied, and she was able to do this through a policy fellowship via the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), which places Ph.D.s and engineers in government agencies for one to two years.  Carney’s assignment was with United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and her work was in the area of international forest conservation and biodiversity.  While she missed having the opportunity to explore novel scientific questions, she felt her scientific expertise was of real value to the agency, and she liked applying her knowledge to real-world problems.  An added bonus was travel, including trips to Brazil and Brussels, as part of a USAID team that provided technical support to field programs.

Though she enjoyed the USAID work, Carney’s fellowship only lasted for two years, so she needed to look elsewhere.  She noticed that the most interesting work done through USAID was often conducted by NGOs or consulting firms, working under contract for the agency.  That realization led her to a step she never thought she’d take:  becoming a consultant.  She had always had the perception, she says, that consulting firms were primarily focused on making money.  But then she came across Stratus Consulting, an environmental research company based in Boulder, Colo., and Washington, D.C.   After asking around, Carney learned that Stratus was known for its high-caliber research and that it focused on doing work that protected natural ecosystems and resources.  Carney heard a client describe Stratus as an organization with the intellectual rigor of a think tank and the discipline of a consulting firm. Carney began working for Stratus in 2007 and says she loves the people she works with and the kinds of projects she has been able to take on.

At Stratus, Carney helped secure a wide range of projects from government agencies, foundations, and non-profits.  Her particular focus has been research in support of the Climate Change Division of the Environmental Protection Agency, looking at the effect of climate change on ecosystems and the services they provide.  Another main area of her work has been helping foundations evaluate the effectiveness of their environmental programs.  In this capacity, she has helped lead projects for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

Stratus has been a great
"You learn to jump off cliffs."
place for Carney, particularly at this point in her life.  She and her husband have two children, Zoe, 5, and Lincoln, 3.  Carney says that Stratus offers “incredible flexibility for families.”

Carney’s family had been based in Washington, D.C., since 2004, and they enjoyed the city.  However, when her husband was offered the position of director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, they jumped at it.  Vermont was a bit more their style, says Carney, offering incredible outdoors opportunities, good skiing, and a less congested and less expensive place to live.

Because of this last point, Carney found herself considering cutting way back on her hours for the first time in her career. She also was likely influenced, she says, by how open Vermonters are to slowing down to accommodate a growing family.  In Washington, D.C., nearly everyone she knew was focused on their career and personal achievement; it would have been isolating to step out of the work force.   “I had the option to not work now,” says Carney.  “It allowed me to look at my life differently and to make different choices.”

She started by cutting down her work week.  Stratus agreed to her request to cut back to 15 to 20 hours per week.  But still it was clear to Carney that she wasn’t getting enough time with her children.  The opportunity to be her children’s primary caregiver, rather than entrusting them to day care, won her over. 

“I knew I would regret not doing it,” she says.  Stratus continued to oblige.  Starting in May 2012, Carney began working just two to five hours a week (“or less”) for Stratus.  “I’m engaged at a very low level until I’m ready to jump back in,” she says.  The plan is for Carney to increase her professional work time in two years, when son Lincoln starts kindergarten, though she acknowledges that this is still theoretical.  Meanwhile, she keeps current by reading e-mail updates on policy, science, and some of the projects she had worked on.  Right now, Carney says she’s having a lot of fun focusing on her family in their Shelburne, Vt., home.

Still Carney acknowledges, “It’s a risky thing I’m doing.  I’m not sure how easy it will be to ramp back up.”  But rather than focus on the very real risks of stepping back from her career, she tries to keep the big picture in mind and not dwell too much on career goals she may or may not reach.  “I want to live a fulfilling life,” says Carney.  “It’s not so much about the end goal, but the process.”

Karen Carney credits Kalamazoo College with helping prepare her to make such risky choices.  She notes how the programs and professors at K push students to step out of their comfort zones, both to learn and also to enjoy the richness of what the world has to offer.   She says, “You learn to jump off cliffs. K instills in students a sense of adventure and an appreciation for non-linear paths to learning."

Photo 1 - Karen Carney in the Antarctic.
Photo 2 - Karen and her husband, Taylor Ricketts, at Mitchell Falls in Australia.
Photo 3 - Karen and Zoe enjoy the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.
Photo 4 - Karen Carney graduates from the Ph.D. program at Stanford University.

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