emLab spotlight: Michaela Clemence

michaela clemence headshot in front of poppy photo

Describe your role at emLab.

As emLab’s Executive Director there are three big buckets to my job: (1) supporting the people on our team so they can be wildly successful, (2) solving problems and figuring out how to get things done, and (3) thinking about where we’re heading next and how we get there. I really enjoy all of the aspects of my job and being able to jump from big picture questions on where we are heading and why to solving very tactical challenges about a specific project. I think ensuring that we’re supporting a culture that enables people to thrive and do their best work is one of the most important aspects of my job. A lot of my job is also anticipating and putting out fires. I like problem solving and working in a fast-paced environment, so that part of my job fits my personality well. I also love the strategic part of my job - thinking about what emLab is best at, what our competitive advantage is, and how we can bring those skills to the world. I would say my job is quite multifaceted and that is the thing that I love most about it, every day is different.    

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

I grew up outside of Boston on the south shore of Massachusetts and spent my summers on Cape Cod. Our family has a cottage named “Clem’s Gem” on a pond, so I spent my summers as a kid chasing frogs, catching perch, sailing our sunfish, and building dribble castles at the beach. My mom would tell you that I was one of those kids who could spend 10 hours in the water, be shivering, but would never want to get out. My east coast roots also fostered a deep love of the fall, all things pumpkin and apple, skiing in all conditions (except powder), and Boston sports teams. 

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

Ooh, that is a big question. I grew up with scientists and medical professionals in my family – one of my cousins is a fisheries biologist and another one has a PhD in ocean acoustics and my parents were both nurses – so I’ve always been drawn to the sciences. In college, I worked in a lab as a biology major and spent time doing field work which taught me that my passion wasn’t in developing or executing research individually, but in developing and applying research in a collaborative, interdisciplinary setting. I wasn’t exactly sure what my niche in the science/communications/policy/conservation interface would be and in my early 20s, somehow found myself on a reality tv show where I had the opportunity to work on some of “America’s Toughest Jobs'' from crab fishing on the Bering Sea to oil rigging in Texas to logging in Port Angeles, Washington. As crazy of an experience as that was (I also got to drive a Monster truck, ha), it really opened my eyes to the reality that conservation isn’t only about conserving the environment, it's just as much about people – their behaviors, their preferences, their livelihoods. That’s when I decided to go to graduate school at Bren, which set me on this path to emLab where my passion and interests really come alive every day working in a collaborative and interdisciplinary team to understand people and the environment to inform market-based approaches for environmental and social good. 

What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

Our team and our culture is what I am most proud of and what gets me up in the morning. We have an incredible team of faculty, researchers, data scientists, project managers, communications experts, and students working together to deliver on our “think-and-do tank” approach. Our team is also just made up of an incredible group of humans who I am so proud and lucky to call colleagues. The pandemic presented challenges to every team and organization and I was incredibly impressed at how resilient, adaptable, and empathetic our team was throughout it all. 

What do you think makes emLab unique?

How we work. One of our partners once said that we bring an “attitude of ambitious possibility” to our projects and research, which I think sums it up well. Being positioned in academia provides us with the opportunity to think big about environmental problems and solutions, and working with partners helps to ground that thinking in reality without constraining our team’s creativity. I think it's really hard to both push the frontier on new academic research and also engage deeply with partners and practitioners to ensure that your research really makes a difference in the world and we’ve worked hard over the years to be successful in both of those aspects of our work. 

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

I think in many ways that emLab is pioneering a new approach to research and I hope that we inspire other researchers, economists, and research organizations to embrace a similar interdisciplinary “think-and-do’ approach. 

What keeps you curious about your work at emLab? 

Every day, month, and year with emLab is different and I’m always learning new things which keeps it interesting and exciting for me. I love the diversity of topics we work on and that we work with so many different partners around the world. Working on environmental issues is incredibly dynamic and I enjoy the challenges and opportunity for creativity that these complex topics force. I also love feeling challenged at work and learning new things from my colleagues – whether it's the development of a new research method or the ripe political opportunities to influence decision-making or the newest google hack to make working more efficient. 

What research topic are you most excited to tackle next?

My background is primarily in ocean and fisheries and it's been really fun and challenging starting to work on projects that are outside of my traditional wheelhouse. For example, I'm working with Kelsey Jack in collaboration with Conservation International on a new project looking at how to integrate satellite data into randomized control trials to evaluate conservation outcomes. It is totally blowing my mind and I think it's incredibly exciting to think about how new data and methods can be used to evaluate outcomes cheaper and quicker. We're aiming to develop a set of guidelines that helps practitioners think about how to integrate remote sensing into their randomized control trials. I think it could be a game changer in developing more robust approaches to evaluation of conservation interventions. 

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

Over the next 5 years, my vision is that we continue developing a community of curious, pragmatic researchers that produce better research because they are a part of emLab. I want us to develop new collaborations, test new research approaches, and challenge ourselves and others to ask tough questions, like how market-based approaches address or exacerbate environmental injustices in the world. I want us to continue to engage the next generation of big thinkers and change makers who will push us to think about and communicate our research in new ways. I think part of our success and the fun of emLab has also been keeping an open mind to new opportunities as they arise, so I hope in 5 years we’ve accomplished something completely new that I can’t even imagine right now.


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

Enthusiastic and strategic 

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

I’m Good by The Mowgli’s (listen on Spotify)

What are 5 things you couldn’t live without?

My flip flops, which I basically live in daily regardless of the weather, my google calendar and post-it notes to keep my life organized, my hoka sneakers for my physical and mental health, and as a mom of two small kids, I always have to have a wubbanub (or snacks) in my back pocket.

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

Tough choice between a good swimmer and a flyer. I think ultimately I’d have to go with an ocean dweller like the orca whale. They are curious, very social, love to eat, and are found in every ocean on the planet - so I could travel the globe with my family and friends.

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

Always negotiate!

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

I’m not sure if this counts exactly as “presenting”, but I have been teaching yoga for about 6 years now, so I could teach or talk about yoga postures easily for 40 minutes. 

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

Oooh - hard question. My initial reaction is that I’d want to go to the future because I am such a naturally curious person, and pretty impatient – always thinking about what’s ahead and how to plan for that. That said, I love surprises and honestly am not sure if I would want to give up the mystery of not knowing what the future holds. These days, it feels like life is flying by so fast that I think I would go back to the past as an observer to slow down and soak in some of life’s moments that went by too quickly or enjoy conversations with family members who have passed away like my great-grandmother “Oma” and my aunt.

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