Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sandra Brown, 1944-2017

Sandra Brown passed away two weeks ago and I wanted to register somewhere my great admiration for her and the influence she had on my own career. Sandra was a formidable scientist who dedicated her life to understanding carbon storage in tropical forests, forming the basis of methods we use today and programs to protect forest carbon such as REDD+. She was the external committee member for my dissertation at Clark University, and I can confirm (as others have noted) she never suffered fools (or foolishness) lightly. I remember Sandra being firm on the divide between policy and science, saying that the role of science was only to provide information for the policy, never to direct it. Policy, she emphasized, is best made by policy-makers, and it's not only the science that drives it.

Our paths crossed several more times after that, while I was teaching at Mount Holyoke College and again at Leicester, where she was an external examiner on a viva last year. We got together for dinner while she was here and we spent several hours chatting. We walked by the Attenborough Arboretum and she quizzed me on Sir David versus Sir Richard and which one was the actor and which one the naturalist. I passed her test and she locked arms with me as we walked around the streets near College Court where she was staying. She told me about her childhood growing up in London (not spending hours galavanting through the forest unattended, for what it's worth). Sandra was concerned about improving the capacity of those in developing countries to quantify and manage their own carbon resources, and emphasized the importance of PhD programs like ours in doing so. I admit I feel a bit cheated not to have had another chance to see her, but I know that she felt very lucky to have made it to 72, having experienced a serious illness as a young woman. I believe it was her gratitude for life that made her such a tireless promoter of science and a great proselytizer on the importance of tropical forests in the global carbon budget.

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