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Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Christopher R. W. “Fish” Shephard ’98

Ph.D. Candidate in International Education Policy, Teachers College, Columbia University

Few Princeton University institutions are as far apart in terms of both geography and cultural stereotype as the Tiger Inn eating club “TI” and the 2 Dickinson Street vegetarian co-op “2D.” So all of us in Professor Andrew Dobson’s Panama tropical ecology course were pleasantly surprised to find that snorkel gear and howler monkey observation inventories brought out our common humanity, and no small amount of camaraderie. We learned as much in Panama about “the other side of the street” of Princeton’s social scene as we did about the importance of rainforests, estuaries, hammock sunsets, and tree identification. 

Human ecology and natural ecology are both part of a larger whole, and my experience as an ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) major left me with life-guiding “ecological thinking” long after I’d forgotten the details of population growth models. As an International Baccalaureate student in Tampa, Florida, I had grown up loving natural history. My adviser, Professor Henry Horn, helped refine my observation skills in his “Forest Ecology” course, insisting that I learn the species of New Jersey before I got on that plane to Panama. Mentor Rick Curtis introduced me to the power of experiential education through Outdoor Action, and Todd Kent supported my development as a science educator in the teacher preparation program. What EEB ultimately taught me was that “there is no system outside the system”—pollution, conservation, education, innovation, and everything all species do is connected. 

Local service to global citizenship 

The summer before my senior year, I worked as a counselor at the Princeton-Blairstown Center, which was founded by Princeton students in 1908 as “the Princeton Summer Camp.” In the toughest job I’ve ever had, I led urban high school students from underserved communities in a backpacking expedition to learn about natural history, character, leadership, and stewardship. I grew at least twice as much as the students from the experience, learning about myself and about how true service is always a two-way street, just like the connections in an ecological web. I would go on to write my senior thesis on the human and ecological history of the center, which is America’s longest-running university service project.

After graduation, I pursued a career in science education, eventually serving two years as a USAID education adviser in Kabul, where I helped manage a $350 million education portfolio in support of the Afghan Ministry of Education’s strategic plan, which helped increase enrollment from 900,000 to more than 6 million students. Currently, I am pursing a doctorate in international education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

I treasure my EEB roots, which taught me firsthand how local knowledge, experience, and service is a powerful foundation for meaningful global citizenship and collaboration. Professor Horn taught us that “true learning happens in the spaces between people—difference should be celebrated.” Such ecological thinking brings together aspiring scientists from “TI,” “2D,” and heck, even Terrace, for a lifetime of adventure and meaningful work in pursuit of a more sustainable world.