Scientists choose their line of work because they love curiosity-driven research and they want to save the world. Most of us realize our dreams of huge impacts exceed our talents, and we turn to mentoring, management and more modest ambitions. But Gretchen Daily — a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Bing Professor of Environmental Science at Stanford, a co-founder of the influential Natural Capital Project, and a member of The Nature Conservancy’s board of directors — is the exception: She has changed the world and (who knows?)  might even save it. Read her profile in today’s New York Times to see how a single individual can make such a huge difference.

For the last 20 years, Gretchen’s focus has been on natural capital — the services that nature provides to us in the form of soil fertility, clean water, food, storm protection, recreation and inspiration. After spending her early career making basic ecological discoveries about birds and insects in wild and agricultural landscapes, Gretchen has turned her attention to developing tools for calculating the value of these ecosystem services — both in human terms and dollar terms. The Times profile describes what Gretchen has done, and how it might be the key to a sustainable planet. I want to take you behind the scenes and tell you why she has succeeded.

The usual folk tale about great scientists is that they owe their success to intellect and inspiration. Well, Gretchen is plenty smart, but so are a lot of other scientists who never really make much of a difference. And yes — the concept of natural capital is a “great idea,” but a lot of great ideas never get picked up.

Here is why Gretchen has had such an enormous impact. She is optimistic and conveys that optimism to all who work with her. She shares credit, and builds teams and groups who collectively do work no single individual could accomplish. She takes risks and is willing to be wrong. For example, when we started Nat Cap (see the Times article) we were pretty much fumbling in the dark. But fueled by Gretchen’s optimism, we were confident we would figure it out and not too worried about the criticisms we might get for our simple models. And did I tell you Gretchen is fun to work with — and if you are fun to work with, all of your collaborators and colleagues will be that much more energetic and effective.

Lastly and most importantly, Gretchen is a gifted and passionate communicator. When you go to graduate school and work on your Ph.D. in the field Gretchen was in, all of the emphasis is on experimental design, statistics and modeling. These are important skills — but none are as important as learning how to talk to and write for a broad range of audiences. Gretchen is the master at being able to talk to anyone in a compelling way about why nature matters.

I am certain that natural capital and the economy of nature hold the keys to a sustainable future. Because of my collaboration with Gretchen, I am even sure we will figure it all out. Science remains a career where individuals can still make a huge difference. Just ask anyone who knows Gretchen and her work.

(Image: Gretchen Daily. Image credit: Mark Godfrey/TNC.)

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