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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alum builds on Peace Corps experience in conservation biology career

Published: October 12, 2012
Section: Features

In a remote village along the Bay of Antongil in Madagascar, a small cluster of local children excitedly follow an American woman’s trail.

To onlooker Dan Perlman, Associate Provost and Professor of Biology at Brandeis, their smiling faces say it all. “We’d walk through the town, and a cloud of children would run after her calling out her name wherever we went,” Perlman said.

These children, along with their parents and the entire village they come from, have accomplished wonderful things in collaboration with Rachel Kramer ’05.

Kramer has been engrossed in a very global experience from an early age. Her father was a diplomat, causing Kramer to bounce from an elementary school in Tunisia to a high school in Russia, and finally landing at Brandeis to study conservation ecology and anthropology. The Malagasy children whose faces were brimming with admiration for Kramer, spawned from her contributions to their community. She was there as a representative of the Unites States Peace Corps in the environmental sector.

The Peace Corps, established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, sends participants all around the globe to better promote the American values of peace and friendship.

The Peace Corps mission statement is to, “Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women,” as well as “Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” and vice versa.

A recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, she continues to make strides toward solving some of Earth’s most dire environmental issues. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. and works for TRAFFIC, a joint program of WWF and IUCN, which aims to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals does not threaten the conservation of nature.

As a representative of the Peace Corps partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Kramer helped conduct lemur and indigenous tree species inventories with local research aides. She helped open a library in the Andapa Basin region, taught a women’s farming cooperative new rice cultivation techniques, and organized a workshop for village women interested in learning how to tailor clothes, which led to an increase in their incomes.

“While I was in Madagascar I had four funded community development grants which were working on a range of projects that had been identified by the communities I was serving as priorities,” Kramer said. These community developments resonated throughout entire villages, as Kramer and her Peace Corps compatriots established building blocks that she hopes will expand for future Malagasy generations.

Dan Perlman, or to Kramer, Professor Perlman, was her academic advisor as well as professor for five courses that spanned her four years at Brandeis. His course, Conservation Biology as well as his tutelage, helped Kramer decide to take a path toward ecological preservation and environmental protection.

“What helped orient me was having a really strong mentor in Dan Perlman,” Kramer said.

She also credits her study abroad experience with the School for Field Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and her summer interning at the State Department while at Brandeis as experiences that helped cement her future endeavors.

“While I was at Brandeis, having the flexibility to do a field experience and a policy experience was instrumental,” Kramer said.

Kramer notes that her passion for the bettering of the environment and the world’s ecosystems stems from her experience as a child in the Foreign Service.

“I grew up in West Africa and North Africa for very important years of my life,” Kramer said. “Growing up in developing countries, you develop a knack for abhorring waste and a sense for the importance of social justice and environmental justice.”

This knack for understanding the importance of social and environmental justice helped lead Kramer to Brandeis.

Perlman, the current Associate Professor of Biology, received a Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and is Associate Provost for Assessment and Innovation in Student Learning at Brandeis, gushes with pride when speaking about Kramer.

Perlman cultivated his relationship with Kramer since he first noticed something special about her in his “Humans and the Environment” course.

“[Rachel] is in some ways a very typical Brandeis student, and in some ways an exceptional one,” Perlman said. “Typical in that she throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever she’s doing, and she also wants to change the world and make it better.”

Perlman says that what separates Kramer from her peers and what has seeped into every aspect of her post-Brandeis career is “the range of talents and energy she brings to anything she does.”

Kramer and Perlman continue to work together and keep in touch to this day. Perlman visited Kramer about a year and a half into her time in Madagascar, and he was amazed at the breadth of her work, and the admiration she received from the locals because of it.

“She was beloved by so many people there,” Perlman said. “Kids, adults, it was extraordinary the impact she had. I’ve always been impressed by her, but seeing what she could do in a couple of years was amazing.”

The most impressive aspect of Kramer’s achievements to Perlman is that Kramer has been so humble through it all and she “just wants to make a difference.”

As the sun begins to set on the national parks and small villages dotting the landscape of Madagascar, animals and local villagers alike now share a strong connection with a Brandeis graduate.

With the help of Kramer, and those like her, the spreading of peace crosses imagined borders.