Claire grew up like many other children- loving being outdoors and surrounded by nature. It didn’t take her long to see that the Earth needed people who stand up to protect it! Little things add up to big changes and that’s what led Claire to the sustainability and conservation program at The University of Oklahoma.
Claire Burch is a St. Louis, Missouri native who began her academic career at Miami University just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. She co-majored in Zoology and Environmental Science with a minor in Geography. Burch got a lot of hands on experience spending every summer of her undergraduate education interning at local zoos including the St. Louis Zoo, the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, as well as two summers at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her favorite position was at the Cincinnati Zoo. “That's where I was introduced to sustainability in general,” said Burch. “It was actually voted the greenest zoo in America a couple years ago. They have a sustainability department and I worked as a curatorial intern for a fairly new curator who also had the greenest exhibits. I worked a lot with the sustainability department and talked to them to see how you integrate energy efficiency and water efficiency into zoo keeping. It was an amazing combination of everything I loved.”
She decided to attend OU for graduate school last year because of her now-advisor, professor Rebecca Loraamm. “I emailed probably 30 different professors in various labs asking about openings, explaining my research interests and she had the best response. I was very excited from the beginning and she had tons of ideas and opportunities for funding,” said Burch. “I accepted the position here without actually visiting because at that point the program was a good fit. Once I came here for a visit and I thought, ‘I like this more than I thought I would.’” For her master’s degree Burch steered herself away from a strong zoology focus and moved toward sustainability and conservation. Much of her past work in zoo conservation and sustainability influenced her current interests. For her thesis work, Burch is researching what people know about the interactions between biodiversity conservation and wind energy development. “It’s a survey with 35 questions evaluating what environmentally conscious individuals know about wind energy’s impacts on biodiversity conservation. There's a common misconception that turbines kill lots of birds and cause habitat fragmentation. We are beginning to get the evidence of what people believe versus what is actually true,” said Burch. She focuses on environmentally interested individuals because it is a smaller group, i.e. it is more feasible for a thesis. They also represent a unique group because they may be supportive of one method over the other. This survey may shape how they perceive wind energy development or biodiversity conservation.
Through this research she has found that she is really interested in public perception and how we engage with the environment as well as how we can continue to develop more sustainably. Burch recently returned from a workshop in Dublin, Ireland oriented around resource extraction. It was specifically addressing the mining industry and social science. “Do people know about mining? Resource extraction? What are the perceptions of mining and how do we continue to engage with communities when we do these activities?” said Burch. “I was in the community engagement and environmental activities workshop. We attended lectures taught by mentors and broke up into different workshops that were each sponsored by a different organization,” said Burch. “We were sponsored by one of the mining industry companies that was also sponsoring the event. Then we spent the week breaking down how we engage communities, best practices, and worst practices.”
After her Dublin workshop, Burch found there are also a lot of interesting things happening with domestic mining in the United States. However, public perception will be her underlying theme. In the future, she wants to do research for a nonprofit or the government. “There are a lot of human dimensions’ officers in various government organizations. For example, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has an officer that does surveys,” said Burch. She wants to focus on doing surveys, talking to communities about conservation, and about what would make them want to be part of the positive change she so desperately wants to see.
Burch plans to attend a waste conference in October. Though this arena is unfamiliar to Burch, she is excited to learn another aspect of sustainability. She will be doing a poster session on sustainability curriculum together with fellow OU grad Student, Heather Stelter. The goal of the talk is to encourage sustainability in curriculum at other universities. Burch’s other projects include research with Dr. Loraamm using ecological modeling programs to map disease distribution and a potential project with the OU Center for Risk and Crisis Management. She is also part of the Earth Observation Science for Society and Sustainability certificate at the university. This EOS3 program is part of a national traineeship program through the National Science Foundation, which includes four classes aimed at advanced training in interdisciplinary communication, leadership, and data science skills. One course Burch is involved with for the EOS3 certificate has been doing research in southeast Oklahoma on public perception around water resources and they will finish their publication soon.