emLab spotlight: Robert Heilmayr

robert heilmayr headshot with snowy mountains in the background

Describe your role at emLab.

I’m the Director of emLab’s Land & Freshwater program and lead a variety of different research initiatives looking at how economic incentives drive different land use outcomes.

Where did you grow up? How do you think this area had an impact on the work you do now?

I grew up in McPherson, Kansas and Fort Worth, Texas. Both my parents are Austrian, so I grew up in this very Austrian household, speaking German in the middle of rural Kansas. In some ways I tried to differentiate myself from the place where I was growing up; so, whenever I got the chance I would head out to the mountains in New Mexico. I think a lot of that appreciation was almost in spite of where I was growing up because there wasn't as much nature available, but that made it feel all the more special when I did have that chance to get out in the wild outdoors. That was a big influence and inspiration for me and the work that I chose to do.

What is your personal story behind why you do what you do?

A lot of the joy I find in life is spent out in nature, but figuring out ways to conserve that nature and recognizing the ways in which people depend on the environment is important. Creating opportunities for people to live valuable lives while also finding joy and meaning in more wild spaces, balancing both of those needs, is something I think humanity has been struggling with. We only have one life to tackle the research questions we think are important, so this has been a big motivation in selecting what research I pursue.

Were there any fields of study you were interested in before you chose environmental science and economics?

One of the ways that I've defined myself as an academic is by being super interdisciplinary, so I collaborate a lot with ecologists, geographers, and anthropologists, trying to find interesting ways to bring together different knowledge. Economics and spatial sciences are often the way that I contribute to a project, but finding ways to work on problems that are outside of the core research that I do has always been one of the exciting parts of being an academic. The opportunity to be a professor and explore all of those different research topics, even if they aren't narrowly defined within my core area of research, that's been an amazing opportunity.

What advice do you wish you received early in your career?

Often, we're stuck thinking about where we want to be, as in the job that you want. But, one thing that was really important for me was shifting that thought into ‘what are the individual tasks or parts of a job that I like?’ and using that to reconstruct what I actually wanted to do. This is the advice I give to undergraduates when I'm giving them job advice. For me, it was recognizing that I really like problem solving and research and being on collaborative teams. It was the recognition that I love being both in the classroom and doing research, having that human contact in addition to the research. I hadn't pieced that together until I thought more about the discrete tasks and moments in a day that bring me a lot of joy. So, the advice that I wish I had earlier is to reflect on which moments in your day bring you joy and figure out what types of careers or groups of people you want to surround yourself with in order to have as many of those moments as possible.

Give me a one-word description of how you work.

Curiosity. I think that fundamental drive to understand the world better and to understand economics is so exciting because it allows us to dig into how people respond to each other and to the environment around them. There are always really interesting puzzles to solve that have important implications for how we actually engage with each other in the world, so to me curiosity is this driver that leads me to wake up excited every morning and jump back to my desk, digging into the next set of problems.

What keeps you curious about your work at emLab? 

I am always incredibly curious. So, it's never been a question of what I need to do to keep myself curious. It’s a great opportunity to be in a room with incredible scholars and have a community to get into conversations with, to jump off of each other's ideas. When everyone at emLab gets together, we come up with a dozen ideas for new research projects, papers, or studies we want to pursue. I stay curious by just having that rich community of people who are all puzzling around their own interesting and challenging topics, but still willing to entertain their own intellectual curiosities. Having that space to play around with difficult ideas alongside bright colleagues is what drives me to have more and more curiosity. 

What research question are you most excited to tackle next?

The biggest set of questions I'm trying to tackle in my research right now is around the effectiveness of private sector conservation interventions around the world. For example, commodity agriculture production is one of the major drivers of deforestation and habitat loss. Due to the associated climate impacts, a lot of companies that are in those supply chains, like Cargill and Dow, are adopting various kinds of sustainability commitments, promising to end deforestation. My research is trying to figure out whether those types of promises actually lead to any changes in deforestation on the ground in places like Indonesia or Brazil.

What is your vision for emLab over the next 5 years? 

I came to Santa Barbara about five years ago, so I've seen emLab form out of the Sustainable Fisheries Group and really become this exciting, innovative organization where you know there are a bunch of different environmental topics that are being addressed within this group of super interdisciplinary, brilliant scholars. I think there's still more diversification out of the marine world that is happening with emLab, and I think we can further build on that in the coming five years. What I hope for is to create a space where we are recognized for both the rigor of our science and also the impact that we can have in the world more broadly, especially through our land, climate, and poverty programs. I think that those are all critical areas of research and it's really exciting to see that group growing so quickly within emLab.  

What kind of impact do you hope your work at emLab has on the world?

My excitement of being a part of emLab stems from the fact that we're doing really rigorous science that answers fundamental questions about how the world works and the effectiveness of different interventions, ideally in a way that gets that scientific knowledge into the hands of practitioners, companies, and policymakers. For me, I hope this work has a broader world impact. I think the way we've defined the different programs of work in emLab means that there is this combination of objectives: having a meaningful impact on the environment while simultaneously improving people's lives. Bridging across those two objectives, I think, is a really important way of framing conservation and an area where economics has a lot to contribute.

Rapid fire questions

If you could go to the past or the future as an observer, which would you choose and why? 

I like to say that I like to be in the present, but I'll be honest I am often looking for what the next thing in my day is. I think that my natural instinct would say ‘go observe the future.’ I'm very curious about how the world responds to the challenges that we're facing right now: that over the last century human society has generally made things better for itself and reduced poverty, but has big environmental challenges. What we work on are fundamental threats to that possibility and I'm super optimistic, so maybe this would pop my bubble, but the idea of seeing how we solve those fundamental challenges would be really interesting to look forward to in the future.

What is one song to describe this season of your life?

Just before I logged on to this interview, I actually went to Spotify and was like ‘what are the last couple songs that I've been listening to?’. I'm hesitant to jump into one with lyrics because I haven't even thought about the lyrics and how they map on, but the song I've been listening to the most this past week is Ekuté by Pino Palladino and Blake Mills. It's an instrumental piece and, for me, it's super nice because it builds in this way where I can listen to it while I'm working. But I find that I’ll steadily increase the volume while I'm working and I’ll start to dance to it. I think that's why I like it for this season of my life; I need some music to bring that energy. I've been, you know, sitting in front of my computer for a year and a half, so I need something that makes me actually want to get up and dance again. It makes me feel like I'm in a space with other people moving around. I'm looking forward to the fall and excited to get back in the classroom with students. This song for some reason just kind of captures that vibe for me.

What are 5 things you couldn’t live without?

I'm struggling not to just come up with a list that's probably very similar to most others; you know, my partner or my friends and family. Having a community of students and colleagues and people that I work with, is hugely important for my well being. Almost daily I need to get outside for an hour, whether it's running, surfing, biking, or skiing. There's always some need to just get away from my computer and be in nature and have that kind of moment to myself. Also, I like good food. I used to work as a cook, and I get really unhappy and grumpy when I'm not able to feed myself well.

What could you present about for 40-minutes with absolutely no preparation?

How to survive a night in the mountains in the middle of winter. I actually used to teach this at Stanford. We had an outdoor education program and a lot of that was basic avalanche preparedness and staying warm in snowy conditions.

What is one of the most inspiring places you have been and why?

I think one place that's fully imprinted in my memory is Precipice Lake in the Sierra Nevada. It looks out over this valley called Valhalla in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. I think Ansel Adams described it as the most beautiful place in the Sierra Nevada; it's solid granite walls falling into this alpine lake looking out over the mountain range. It is really beautiful and actually the last time I was out there was maybe four years ago helping my partner do field ecology research, and that's where I ended up proposing to her. It's just a super magical place.

If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?

Since the place I most like being is up in the Sierra Nevada, I’d be a red fox that lives in the Sierra Nevada. I've often felt somewhat of a connection; they do well even in the winter and I feel like that's one of my particular strengths: being happy in the middle of a snowy mountain with nobody around. I think their curiosity and this omnivorous diet matches my curiosity and interdisciplinarity, jumping around different research areas.

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