Lucas Joppa grew up in northern Wisconsin 30 miles from the nearest stoplight, without a TV or computer. He spent his free time in the woods and became “hugely interested” in how various wild species interacted. So it’s a lot easier to imagine him having a career devoted to wildlife conservation than to developing digital gadgets for Microsoft. In fact, Joppa does both. After going on to earn a Ph.D. at Duke University and a stint in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Joppa moved to Cambridge, England, with Microsoft’s Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences Group. For the past five years he’s focused on developing technologies, programs and models to support global conservation efforts—work he’s continuing from a new location this fall with a move to corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
Did you come to UW–Madison with an eye toward a career in conservation?
No. That was my passion, but it never occurred to me that your real job could be the thing you’re most inspired by. Then I took [wildlife ecology professor] Stan Temple’s Extinction of Species course. Seeing this guy who was so passionate, so fascinated by what he was talking about, I thought, “He’s talking about exactly what I’m interested in.” It was Stan who suggested that I major in wildlife ecology.
How did that prepare you for what you’re doing now?
What the forest and wildlife ecology department did so well was combine the theory and academic side of conservation biology—the statistics and computer programming—with a very hands-on applied approach. I found afterward that that’s pretty rare. I find I’m often the only person in the room with an understanding of both the natural history and the statistics and computing needed to understand the overall system.
Give us an example of the kind of projects you’re involved in.
One thing we’re doing is developing an extremely cheap, lightweight, reprogrammable tracking device for animals. We want to let as many people track as many animals as possible. Since conservation is a niche market, tracking devices are produced in small quantities, so they end up being pretty expensive. The organizations that most need these devices are least able to afford them. We want to change that. We’re trying to build devices that are cheap and beefy enough to hold up in the wild and are easy for people to re-purpose for their own needs.
What advice do you have for today’s wildlife students?
If you do what you’re passionate about doing, the skills and the job will come. It’s hard to be the best at something if you’re not passionate about it because there’s always somebody who cares more and will work harder. They don’t mind taking the hard classes or putting in the time—not because they have to, but because they’re fascinated. That kind of passion—waking up every day wanting to go to work—that’s rare. But everybody I know with that attitude is hugely successful.