The legacy of Jackson Rigney, an agronomist who served NC State for more than 40 years, lives on through the scholarship and service of professors like Erin Sills. Sills, a professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, received Rigney’s namesake award — the Jackson Rigney International Service Award — at the Office of Global Engagement’s 2018 Global Engagement Exposition.
The Office of Global Engagement honored Sills for her more than 20 years of dedication to international service through her teaching and research. Since she joined NC State in 1997, she’s engaged in rigorous impact evaluation of forest conservation policies and encouraged graduate students to use economics and social science to answer questions about forest management and conservation.
Sills’ research has largely focused on subtropical and tropical regions — including the Amazon, Indonesia, Central America and West and Central Africa — currently undergoing rapid deforestation and land use change. Forests in these areas contain the highest concentration of biodiversity in the world, and present opportunities for combining sustainable development with resource conservation. Her work on REDD+, or “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries, plus the role of conservation, sustainable management of these forests,” seeks to further these aims.
“Looking at the causal impact of conservation policies, and how these policies impact local people, drives much of my research,” said Sills. “Efforts to address environmental issues through initiatives like REDD+ must also recognize the impact of policymaking on locals to design truly global conservation solutions.”
Over the next few years, Sills will shift some of her focus to Eastern Africa, with work on a National Science Foundation-supported project on household energy transitions and energy poverty in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Another project, focused on the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, will combine theoretical modeling of local land and resource use decisions and empirical impact evaluation of environmental policies.
Sills credits much of the success in her research to graduate students, whom she mentors at both the master’s and doctoral levels. She is the faculty sponsor for the International Society of Tropical Foresters, which includes many graduate students. Additionally, her twelfth doctoral student recently successfully defended her dissertation on research completed in Costa Rica.
“I invest the most effort and get the most satisfaction from mentoring graduate students,” said Sills. “It is important and great fun to give these students international opportunities and see them ‘catch the bug’ like I did many years ago, and to know that they’re going to continue in international work and research.”
To Sills, the Jackson Rigney International Service Award primarily reflects on her graduate students’ dedication to their field, and to her involvement in bringing international opportunities to the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. Her efforts in this area include helping undergraduate students take advantage of study abroad, and bringing international scholars to the department to share their expertise.
Internationalization benefits the department by giving students a well-rounded education and equipping students and faculty with the ability to address forestry and conservation challenges head-on.
“Forestry, a very globalized field, depends on international efforts to solve its issues related to conservation and the environment. Bringing people together from different backgrounds with different viewpoints is crucial,” said Sills. “The only way to tackle those problems — to construct a reasonable methodology to deliver relevant answers to policy questions — is to be able to see them from varying perspectives. That fundamentally is what students get out of international exposure at NC State — the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes.”