Cara (Meghan) Downes
Women in Science Menu
New Research Economist Joins Research Work Unit 4804
Meet Cara (Meghan) Downes, Research Economist, who recently joined the Southern Research Station Economics and Policy unit at the Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Research Triangle Park (RTP), N.C. Downes is coming from New Mexico State University (NMSU) where she was the Associate Professor of Economics. She received her doctorate in Environmental and Resource Economics from the University of New Mexico. Downes will be focusing most of her research and development activities on understanding wildfire suppression and related wildfire and disturbance economics processes. She will be partly responsible for advancing the unit’s efforts to produce periodic wildfire suppression expenditure forecasts for the Forest Service and Department of the Interior.
What do you do for the Southern Research Station?
As a natural resource and environmental economist, I work to understand how the natural world and the human world interact, and try to find solutions to environmental and resource issues. As a Forest Service economist, my job is to estimate how much is spent fighting fires; predicting what expenditures will be in the coming year; trying to better understand how money is spent; and if that money is spent effectively. Key to my work is developing new models and data for fire economics research at the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station.
Another component of my work is investigating ecosystem services, non-timber forest products, and the economics of sustainable development using forest resources. Our nation’s forests are one of our most precious resources. My work is understanding how these resources are used and how we can develop policies to protect and enhance them for the American people across generations.
When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?
I am brand spanking new at the Forest Service. I started in January this year. It has been a fun and exciting onboarding process. Coming to the Forest Service is a bit like coming full circle for me. I started my career as a researcher for the Forest Service while a graduate student. After working for (NMSU) for 10 years, the opportunity to pursue research full-time for the Forest Service was very appealing. My appointment at NMSU was very rewarding and I enjoyed my time serving the citizens of New Mexico, but I was ready for a new challenge and to get back to my Forest Service roots. I have always been fascinated by forests and the role of human behavior on the functioning of forests for plants, animals, and humans. The complex interconnections between human well-being and forest well-being have been fascinating for me. Many a long hike have found me wandering the woods contemplating how we can better use these resources to provide for human societies while maintaining a vibrant and beautiful forest/natural world. To have the opportunity to study these complex relationships and find ways to improve our policies was very compelling. I feel this will be a very fulfilling work experience.
What led you to pursue this field of study?
I grew up in New Mexico and have spent my life in the woods and the mountains and the grand open spaces of the West. Catastrophic wildfires were a common occurrence while I was growing up, and I have vivid memories of the dramatic and devastating fires of Las Conchas and Cerro Grande, among others. The Pines Canyon area in the Santa Fe National Forest was a lush area with a year round stream and green grass and deep snow and giant Ponderosa pines – rare in the arid southwest. The Las Conchas fire destroyed the canyon, and the catastrophic fire fundamentally altered the ecosystem of the canyon.
The Cerro Grande fire that burned areas of Los Alamos and threatened nuclear material at the National Laboratory created quite an impression on me as well. These fires represented dramatic national events, but also highlighted for me the complex and contentious relationships between environmental groups, the Forest Service, policy makers, and Mother Nature herself. Fire is such a fascinating and terrifying phenomenon – trying to understand its impacts, its costs, its benefits, and the role policy plays in mitigating the damages and enhancing the benefits is definitely a wonderful challenge!
What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?
A typical day will find me exploring data, writing computer code, staring at graphs, contemplating mathematical equations (and sometimes writing new ones) and other computer-math related issues. However, the math and statistics is all there to write a story about fire, policy, human and forest well-being. Occasionally, we might argue about equations and we certainly debate the nature of the numbers we are estimating. The life of an analyst is probably not very exciting to most people, but the work is exciting and rewarding – intellectually. I love to solve problems and I find myself constantly wondering about the natural world and how we model it – so for me economics is exciting. I have always joked that I need a lab coat, and the RTP office encourages that as our little band of economists sits amongst the lab equipment and all the physical scientists.
Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?
My work as a professor at NMSU found me working as an economist on a large inter-disciplinary team for bio-energy. I got to spend seven years touring all kinds of amazing facilities trying to produce gasoline from algae. I got to smell dairy waste, fish aquaculture waste, and fuel labs – all for the sake of economics! While algae may be a sustainable fuel – it literally stinks. Nothing clears a multi-story multi-million dollar lab as the processing of rotten algae into fuel using hydrothermal liquefaction. We learned an important economic lesson from the stench – algae processing and stabilization needs to be done close to the harvesting, which leads to a very different engineering plan that leads to different economic costs and environmental impacts. The close connection between the physical world and the economic world is amazing – and smelly. As an economist working on biological and resource based problems, I get to spend a lot of time learning the details of very diverse areas of science in order to try to estimate the costs and benefits, or impacts of the technology. This work has been exciting (and smelly). I have had the opportunity to tour many national labs, and world-class biological and fuel laboratories. Working with industry and academics to try to solve some of the world’s energy, food and environmental issues has been very exciting. It has allowed me to meet fascinating people from around the world.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Hands down, the feeling of contributing to solutions to important problems. I love solving problems, and every day I have a new challenge, or a new opportunity to create new knowledge, or come up with policy solutions to help humans and the natural world.
To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?
Being a woman in science is challenging sometimes. Often, I have found myself to be the only woman in the meeting. When I was new as a professor I think I felt intimidated by this, but I have had wonderful experiences and have always felt supported by my colleagues. A challenge that is felt by women (and men) is the pull between children and career. The difficulties of teaching while pregnant along with traveling for business conferences and presentations while pregnant with twins was challenging. Compassionate employers and colleagues, made it do-able. Technology has also changed a lot and that makes it much easier to create a work-life balance and care for children better. Work and children rearing is a significant social issue that has no easy answers, but I will say more education and job skills makes it easier. The physical burden of creating and taking care of very small children is hard, and has always been a significant barrier for women. I feel modern technology and policies that provide flexibility make it possible to have a rewarding and meaningful career, while still also raising a family. The policies of the Forest Service regarding work life balance and flexibility for family care were a significant attraction to me.
What women have inspired you?
I have two women that have really inspired me.
My mother (a bit of a cliché perhaps) and a colleague of mine at the University of Arizona. My mom worked hard to raise her kids while working as an architectural draftswoman. She grew up in rural Wisconsin and had a hard life, but valued education and hard work. After I started college, she went back to school, eventually earning her PhD in sociology and getting a job as a college professor in her 60s. Her hard work and perseverance in pursuing her own education amazes me. She can bake and garden and preserve and sew – all while teaching 5 classes a semester well into her 70s. My mom optimizes the best of the 1960s women’s movement – she worked hard while caring for her children and passed on her extensive knowledge of baking, cooking, gardening, and food preservation all while being a dedicated teacher of social theory to college students.
The other woman for whom I have tremendous admiration is Dr. Kimberly Ogden at the University of Arizona. She is a chemical engineer who has raised two boys and survived a very competitive and male dominated field to achieve international recognition in fuel chemistry and engineering. Her work with her students and her dedication to her family, her students, and her engineering innovations are inspiring.
These women have shown me how to be kind, loving, and compassionate – while still being tough and strong and excelling in STEM fields.
What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?
The one thing that seems to link all the successful scientists I know is dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. They are driven to answer questions and solve problems. This deep interest and passion in the subject, allows them to push through whatever challenges come up in order to succeed. If you find yourself constantly wondering and contemplating “why” about a particular subject – then the pursuit of answering those questions will lead you to very interesting and rewarding things. Perseverance requires passion. I became good at what I do, not because I wanted to be good at what I do, but because I was fascinated by the “problem” and doggedly pursued trying to solve the problem, which has led to success. I would encourage all those who ask “why” to follow the question and see where it leads!