May 8, 2012 Issue
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Political Science Alum Realizes Dream of Helping the Planet

Political Science Alum Realizes Dream of Helping the Planet

Working to help the environment is a priority for many earth-conscious students, but thinking outside the box turned a political science master's degree into a career helping sustain salmon ecosystems for one alumnus.

Maureen Geesey graduated in 2007 from the master's program in Political Science at the University of Colorado Denver and is now a Program Associate for the Environment Program and the Wild Salmon Ecosystem Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in San Francisco. Geesey says of her roots, "I grew up in a small town in Wyoming, really close to the outdoors--like open the back door and you are in the wilderness close--so I’ve always felt a tie to that. I just wanted to make sure that whatever I was doing I was giving back and making a contribution."

Geesey's workplace is a perfect fit for this ambition. The Moore Foundation is dedicated to advancing environmental conservation and scientific research around the world, as well as helping to improve quality of life in the San Francisco Bay Area. This privately funded foundation, established in 2000, has awarded hundreds of grants worth millions of dollars. Geesey was hired in 2007, before she had even completed her degree at CU Denver. She says, "When I was finishing my master's thesis project I started looking for jobs in San Francisco, and I ended up getting a job at the Moore Foundation before I had defended my thesis project. So I moved out here, started working, and ended up having to fly back and forth to defend."

Originally, Geesey thought she might want to go to law school to study environmental law with a focus on treaties after she finished her undergraduate degree at Colorado State. However, before applying to law schools, she took a job that allowed her to see what corporate law was really like. "About 6 months in, I figured out it probably wasn't the career path that I wanted, and decided to go back and get my masters. I had really enjoyed political science, and that's what my undergrad degree was in," she remembers. Like many students, Geesey worked part-time while pursuing her masters and appreciated the flexibility of the political science program at CU Denver. "This way, I could get a graduate degree while actually entering the work-world and getting professional experience," she says.

Her strong commitment to protecting the environment meant finding a way to make that political science degree take her where she wanted to go: "I liked math and sciences, but it was never my strong suit, so this was a different way to work in the field of environmental research and protection." Now in her role at the Moore Foundation, Geesey gets to experience many different parts of philanthropy. "No two days are the same; it depends on what day it is, what time of year it is. Sometimes I help to manage our grant portfolio budget?figuring out how much money we have left to spend and what's accounted for and promised?some days it's editing grant summaries, other days it's doing research on specific things we have interest in and seeing if there are opportunities there." Geesey makes the comparison, "It's a bit like school, in that I'm always learning something more and always challenged to pursue the next thing that's going on in the field. Everything changes all the time, and every day is different."

The Moore Foundation has a three-fold primary focus: environmental conservation, science exploration and advancement beyond the environmental realm, and assisting the local community of the San Francisco Bay Area. Geesey was hired for the Environmental Conservation team and then was assigned specifically to the Wild Salmon Ecosystems Initiative. This group works to preserve habitat throughout the North Pacific and to protect wild salmon populations by promoting sustainable, responsible hatchery aquaculture practices. "This was the first initiative launched by the foundation; it came from Gordon's passion for the environment and the outdoors," she explains.

Describing the way the Moore Foundation makes choices about funding and operations, Geesey says, "We employ an engaged and targeted approach to philanthropy, so we define what our intended outcomes are, what we want to achieve, and we work backward through the steps we think we need to get there. We seek out potential partners and grantees who are working on things aligned with the strategies we've developed, who we believe can help move the outcomes forward." The foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals; instead, it stays on the cutting edge of research in fields of interest and monitors all players in the field to determine who to partner with.

Because salmon populations have been faltering for over a decade, new thinking is now constantly replacing old strategies as the work moves forward. Geesey says, "My favorite part of my job is that I'm constantly challenged to look at a problem from different angles and from outside-the-box. In the office we're encouraged to step back and make sure we are tackling an issue from all sides." She believes this type of critical thinking is something honed during her time in the CU Denver political science department, adding that, "I feel like when you develop those skills in school, the ability to see your work from many angles, it makes you very marketable."

Geesey offers this advice for people interested in working in the environmental non-profit sector: "Network?make your presence known. Follow up if you send something in an email and you don't hear back; be persistent. In the professional world, it's all about making the right connections, and then staying up to date with them. Don't let your relationships fizzle out. Just because someone isn't in your life right at that moment doesn't mean you might not want to know them again in the future." Geesey says education is another key to her success, "The non-profit sector is definitely moving to a place where it's easier to get ahead when you have an advanced degree."

Geesey took the education she received from CU Denver and became a force for good in the fight to protect natural resources and the planet. When considering what motivated her to follow this calling, she says, "I want to make sure that the wilderness is conserved and that it's here for others to enjoy."

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