2012 ISD graduate is awarded prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship
2012 ISD graduate, Valentine Reiss-Woolever, moved from Tuscon, Arizona, USA to Düsseldorf prior to the start of 9th grade. She and her family had thought the move would be short term, but they all loved Germany so much they remained. Her parents, Virginia Reiss and Phillip Woolever are beloved members of the ISD faculty still today.
After graduation from ISD, Valentine studied Zoology at University College Cork in Ireland, including an exchange at National University of Singapore. While at ISD, Valentine had focused her study on business and economics. However, after taking a gap year prior to university, she realised that business was not a good fit for her long-term interests. When Valentine become more clear regarding the direction she wanted to take, ISD Counselling Department Head, Keith Layman, helped her find programs that better suited her new focus: zoology and ecology.
During her undergraduate study, Valentine had a chance to reflect on the experiences she had at ISD. She believes that an ISD education opens up the world to students in small ways that you don’t realise at first. Whether it’s a trip for Model UN, a NECIS tournament or a class trip, as an ISD student you build your confidence to explore the world. You soon realise you can go anywhere you desire.
After her undergraduate studies, Valentine began working across Latin America in community-based conservation. From a project helping small farmers in Ecuador uncover sustainable farming options to managing a sea turtle conservation project in Mexico, Valentine enjoyed each project she worked on.
Since her time at ISD, Valentine has become very aware of the juxtaposition between Europe and the rest of the world. She was most surprised to meet a family in the Amazon who didn’t know about the World Wars. The family was astonished that the wars could’ve have happened and they found it hard to believe that the things Valentine recounted were true. Since ISD, Valentine’s experiences have been international, but at a completely different level.
In October 2019, Valentine will begin her PhD program in Zoology at Cambridge University as a recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship began in 2000 with a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Cambridge with the aim of building a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.
For her PhD research, she will use the field knowledge and soft skills acquired from working with communities and around the world. Specifically, after experiencing the conflicts plaguing tropical forests first-hand, Valentine has decided to work on solving a critical problem: while demand for agricultural land threatens biodiversity, production is essential to livelihoods.
Working with Dr. Edgar Turner, Valentine will focus on conservation and income stability in smallholder oil palm plantations, evaluating management methods’ effects on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and profit. The research will be completed in Malaysia, a country responsible for 40% of the world’s palm oil production. After setting up the structure of her research, she will spend the bulk of her time in Malaysia.
Valentine was inspired to research the relationship between ecology and economic stability after her internship in the Amazon. She realised quickly that there is not a single aspect of palm oil production that needs to be addressed. Rather, the complex relationship between economic stability, food supply, and biodiversity must be managed simultaneously.
Worldwide, 36% of all vegetable oil produced in the world is palm oil. While it is an ubiquitous crop, it is also the most controversial, demonised, well-intended and misinformed crop. As one of the world’s leading producers of palm oil, Malaysia is committed to having all palm oil farming be sustainable by 2025.
Valentine’s research aims to improve understanding of oil palm ecology, smallholder economic relations, and other core ecological and sociological principles. With educated management, she believes biodiversity conservation has potential to ameliorate poverty and foster improvement for a range of pressing concerns. In countries like Malaysia, where there is demand but no research, small holder farmers cannot meet sustainability demands on their own.
While Valentine is excited to begin her work, she is most excited to see her research implemented in the real world. Working with palm oil organisations in Malaysia, they can work together and provide immediate feedback to make the necessary changes. Next, implement the processes worldwide.
What advice would Valentine give to an ISD 10, 11 or 12th grader? Focus on what makes you happy rather than doing what you are told. It’s easy to follow a study track of business or counselling, but also consider other areas where you have interest. She believes the adage, find what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life, is a misnomer. No matter what you ultimately choose to study, you will absolutely need to work to sustain your own livelihood. This is why it’s important to focus on something that you enjoy.
Valentine is grateful for her time at ISD. She recognises the privilege that she experienced: great faculty, amazing experiences and connections for a lifetime. She cautions current students to not lose sight of this privilege and to remember their obligation to the world. Her request is for ISD students to do something that helps others. Whether it’s business, art, anything – think about the global impact you can make each day.
Congratulations, Valentine. We wish you all the best as you do your best to positively impact the world.