Developing an Innovative Conservation Training Program

At the Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (MCCL) at Point B Design + Training, we’ve developed a thoughtful, remarkably effective training program to build research and conservation skills and knowledge and to cultivate the passion that many youths have for environmental work.

We designed this as part of the Gulf of Mottama Project’s (GoMP) Conservation and Research Training Program, which I developed while working for IUCN to help meaningfully achieve my pre-set work duties of “building local capacity for research.”

This program’s core is the MCCL internship program, where we work with three sets of interns: (1) full-time interns who are recent graduates; (2) graduate student interns from Mawlamyine and Bago Universities; (3) undergraduate student interns from those same universities. We are open to students from any department, as long as their application and interview shows genuine passion for environmental issues and an eagerness to learn. This is implemented alongside a program for supporting and guiding university research teams (faculty and graduate students), as well as joint workshops that are open to interested participants beyond our internship cohort.

We built this program to address three concerns that had arisen during previous pre-defined efforts to build research skills at local universities:

  1. How to meaningfully engage a cohort of participants through a curriculum of foundational and specific trainings?
  2. How to (quickly!) fill some of the critical gaps of the existing educational system and build skills and mindsets needed to underpin thoughtful, high-quality research (and application of that research)?
  3. How to set participants up for sustained growth and success beyond the lifespan of our project?

The internship program is built on a training curriculum that covers 3 levels of skills:

  1. Foundational mindset: Establishing critical thinking, systems thinking, and mindfulness as core ways of thinking
  2. Enabling tools: Building at least basic computer skills (perhaps even starting with typing trainings), and also practice skills for general communication (including reading research papers in English) and career logistics (e.g., how to write a CV)
  3. Research-specific skills: This includes general, cross-cutting skills (proposal writing, project design, preparing budgets, research ethics), as well as more specific methodologies for data collection and analysis, and how to present findings to stakeholders

These skills are learned through regular skills seminars, specific trainings, and intensive workshops, as well as field experience and participation in ongoing research projects and outreach activities. We sequentially increase the responsibilities of the full-time and graduate student interns, transferring program management, training, and leadership skills to them over time. I (or another external expert) directly train the MCCL staff, developing trainings and research methodologies together, and then they implement these activities as a sort of “training of trainers.” The senior interns initially pick up some co-training duties, and then are able to lead the trainings and field activities on their own, allowing us to make the most of our relatively small team.

I’m very proud of this program, which has been running since 2018 and has trained at least 20 interns thus far. We added two Research Assistant positions for former full-time interns, and extended the program from 6 months to 1 year based on the most common “negative” feedback from our end-of-internship evaluations, which was that 6 months was too short.

These evaluations indicate that our interns gain substantial skills, and – most resoundingly for me – confidence. “Confidence” was not an option I’d put in our evaluation surveys; it was written in by several interns under the “Other: Specify” option. And this represents what I love so much about our program: the intangible outcomes – the happy little (but growing) community of youths building confidence and skills together, and who take the tools and information from our trainings and make magic out of them.

Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab @ PointB Design + Training

A very exciting part of my current work is my close collaboration with the Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (MCCL) – part of the social innovation lab and training center, Point B Design + Training.  This unique, innovative group builds skills and develops solutions for the future of coastal conservation in Myanmar, with a focus on youths.

MCCL was founded by 3 bright young researchers who have been trained in Design Thinking, have experience working on diverse human-centered projects, and are passionate about improving conservation and environmental management in their country. We have been working together since 2016, beginning with various small projects as part of my postdoc; the three co-founders were so inspired by their experience studying coastal issues that they formed MCCL within Point B. Over the next 2 years, we solidified our partnership as collaborators on the Gulf of Mottama Project, and now continue our work together with me acting as a Research and Conservation Advisor consultant.

Together, our work spans research, training, and outreach, based on core values of Design Thinking – creativity, human-centered thinking, empathy, systems, and critical thinking. Highlights include:

  • Developing and implementing an intensive internship and student internship program to train recent graduates and graduate/undergraduate students from Bago and Mawlamyine Universities in core research skills, technical skills, field research, and outreach to support their confidence and capacity as aspiring conservation researchers. So far, we have trained at least 18 interns/student interns, plus dozens more students and faculty through intensive workshops, Reading Discussion groups, and field experience.
  • “Discovering” (to science) subpopulations of Indo-Pacific Finless porpoise, Irrawaddy dolphin, and Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin in the Gulf of Mottama (working with local communities, who knew of their existence long before!) and launching the only active marine mammal research project on Myanmar’s coastline (at the time)
  • Implementing Most Significant Change qualitative evaluation of Gulf of Mottama Project’s impacts to communities
  • Assessing stakeholder perceptions of process and inclusion in the formation of Locally Managed Marine Areas in the Myeik Archipelago, for FFI

Their current areas of work also include considerable efforts in plastic waste research and reduction, and providing technical and field support to local university research teams. Their founding members include a Chevening Scholar and an ASEAN Youth Biodiversity Leader; they were awarded the J. Stephen Leatherwood Award at the 2019 World Marine Mammal Conference for most outstanding presentation related to marine mammal conservation and research in Asia!

I am thrilled to be a part of MCCL as they grow into an important hub for training the future of marine conservation in Myanmar. I want to emphasize that my role is only a part of the magic that they work. We are moving more toward implementing Design Thinking in marine mammal conservation and plastic waste reduction efforts this year!

To learn more about MCCL, please check out the website and Facebook page!

Not in my country: From across the Pacific. With timeless words from Freya Stark. And some links.

Travel, if done thoughtfully, makes us feel more like citizens of the world rather than being defined by the perimeter of one country’s borders. Borders are irrelevant to my concern for the well-being of humanity.  But the serious threats now facing progress, rights, and equality in my adopted country, the United States of America, have sparked what for me is a new sense of passionate patriotism, an ardent allegiance: I am not going to stand by and let this happen to my country. Not in my country.

And here is where the ongoing tension between commitments at home and exploring abroad has become particularly pronounced. I feel pain and outrage for those who are already suffering from hate speech and crimes, and I feel disbelief and weakly modulated panic as I read news of Trump’s appointees. Not to mention, the ongoing NDAPL situation which, though separate from Trump’s election, similarly demonstrates the worst of our country.  This has all got me in a fist-swinging, pugilistic scowling, “LET ME AT ‘EM!” mentality – I’m all in to join the progressive revolution, to protest and donate, to meet and strategize, to campaign, to reach out – to reclaim the country for those of us on the side of good.

But I am here, across the Pacific Ocean…  I am not in my country to firmly declare, “Not in my country!” Slow internet access has made signing petitions difficult, even impossible (those damn “captchas” never load), and managing donations a huge headache. Phone calls to Congress have featured poor reception and dropped calls.  Like many, I have been consumed by browsing Facebook, by reading news sites, all of this taking up time (especially with an unreliable internet connection). These inconveniences are trivial when one considers the fear that many in the US are dealing with now, so I have persisted in trying to do what I can from afar.  But, I feel frustrated at not being able to be physically present to defend my country, not being able to do more right now.

And I feel like I am neglecting my current experience.  The inundation of news about countless things to be depressed and upset about drains emotional energy and threatens to monopolize my attention.  One of the most invigorating things about travel, to me, is fully appreciating the present place and moment, soaking in everything that the experience has to offer.  Travel, again, done thoughtfully, can bring people with vastly different backgrounds together; it can foster compassion beyond the distinctions of skin color, religion, or nationality, and I believe it is a powerful tool for peace.  This trip has truly inspired me, as I’ve seen rich potential for collaborations in research and training on how to understand and, hopefully, promote the well-being of the environment and people, at a dynamic time in Myanmar’s history.  But I have been cooping myself up in my room, obsessively scrolling and clicking (and waiting… for… things… to… load) and reading and despairing, instead of focusing on my work here, studying the language, and interacting with people as much as I would on any other trip.

My collaborators here, Point b Design + Training, whose team and change agents are doing good things in Myanmar

I am fortunate, privileged, to be far from the US in the dark post-election days (I have more thoughts about this that I’d like to share, a bit later).  The idea of distancing myself, for the next few weeks, from the turmoil back home is a luxury, and it elicits guilt. As the intrepid traveler and magically eloquent writer, Frey Stark, puts it: “There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do.”  How can I claim to be passionate about protecting rights and equality in the US if I flee from reading the news because the stress it elicits is detracting from my travel experience, while others are fearing for their lives and families, while ignorance and hatred are being appointed to top political positions?

A Whatsapp survey of some people whose social justice ethics I most respect returned unanimous results: Obsessing over these things will just wear one down, if one is not in a situation to act meaningfully against them.  And these problems will still exist when I return home, and will be around for a long time, unfortunately.  My work as a “citizen of the world” is better served if I focus on what I’m doing here, now.  And I will be more able to contribute to the good fight when I come home if I don’t erode my spirit now with the constant clatter of bad news crowding my Facebook feed.  Many of them have also had to modulate their exposure to news, to gather their strength to prepare and mobilize for action. We have a long fight ahead of us, with a lot to do and a lot to learn. I am so fortunate to have such an inspirational crowd of make-the-world-better friends, to whom I’ll be looking for guidance throughout this process.

This sunset at our field site brought me some solace the day after the election…

I’ve turned to my collection of quotes from Freya Stark to find artfully wrought words that commiserate with my feelings on all of this. I found several, and have copied them below – I hope you find them interesting, and maybe even a little soothing in their poignancy. For now, I’m going to leave you with Freya’s words and some of my favorite post-election links, and focus on my time here, while gathering my strength for what could be the worst case of reverse culture shock that I’ve ever experienced. But I tell you: I am ready to come off that plane and hit the ground running, arms a-swinging, ready to join the fight*.

*in spirit. The physical side will be manifested following a solid day of post-trans-Pacific sleep.

And now, in the timelessly wise words of Freya Stark:
And now, in the timelessly wise words of Freya Stark:

In one form or another, conscious or unconscious, we have all become propagandists; integrity alone can keep us truthful.

The true call of the desert, of the mountains, or the sea, is their silence – free of the networks of dead speech.

…the stupidity of people who feel certain about things they never try to find out. A world that educates people to be ignorant – that is what this world of ours is .

The most ominous of fallacies – the belief that things can be kept static by inaction.

Tolerance cannot afford to have anything to do with the fallacy that evil may convert itself to good.

Constancy, far from being a virtue, seems often to be the besetting sin of the human race, daughter of laziness and self-sufficiency, sister of sleep, the cause of most wars and practically all persecutions.

Every victory of man over man has in itself a taste of defeat… There is no essential difference between the various human groups, creatures whose bones and brains and members are the same; and every damage we do there is a form of mutilation, as if the fingers of the left hand were to be cut off by the right.

Once divested of missionary virus, the cult of our gods gives no offence. It would be a peaceful age if this were recognized, and religion, Christian, communist or any other, were to rely on practice and not on conversion for her growth.

Few are the giants of the soul who actually feel that the human race is their family circle.

The main necessity on both sides of a revolution is kindness, which makes possible the most surprising things. To treat one’s neighbor as oneself is the fundamental maxim for revolution.



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