By Donna Parish
Photo by Robin Johnson
In the mid-1980s, people began to notice the change in climate. As the temperatures started to rise, so did many scientists’ curiosity about how humans and natural systems might be exacerbating this shift. That’s when Dr. Virginia Burkett ’96 began reading as much as she could on the subject to better understand the cause-and-effect relationship and what could be done to alter its consequences.
Burkett said growing up in Biloxi, Mississippi, a high school marine biology teacher kindled her love of science. “I still remember the scientific names of all the fishes and invertebrates we’d catch in our seines during field trips to the marshes and barrier islands,” she said. “I simply could not get enough of the coast.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree in zoology and master’s degree in botany, Burkett worked for the Louisiana Sea Grant Program studying the rapid rates of coastal erosion and forest loss. Her first publication documented the inland migration of oyster-growing areas in coastal Louisiana and the effects of the increasing salinity on these filter-feeding mollusks.
Burkett later continued her education. She said at age 46, she didn’t think a doctoral degree would make a difference in her career. But with encouragement from co-workers, Burkett decided to pursue it and earned her Ph.D. in forestry from SFA in 1996. She said doing so opened doors for her to work internationally as a scientist.
In 2007, Burkett was among the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning fourth assessment report. Many scientists and policymakers credit this report with being the catalyst for environmental change worldwide.
She also has received dozens of additional awards for her work, including the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Achievement Award for Science and the President’s Public Service Award from The Nature Conservancy.
Currently, Burkett is the acting associate director for climate change and land use for the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation’s largest water, Earth, and biological science and civilian-mapping agency. Its employees collect, monitor, analyze and promote scientific understanding about natural resource conditions, issues and problems.
During the past two decades, Burkett has experienced a remarkable career, including stints as USGS chief scientist for climate and land use change; chief of the Forest Ecology Branch at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center; secretary/director of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; acting director of the Louisiana Coastal Zone Management Program; and assistant director of the Louisiana Geological Survey.
Her expertise in coastal wetlands and estuaries led to her first nomination in 1998 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to serve as a lead author of an international climate assessment. Since then, Burkett has served as lead author on the United Nations IPCC’s third, fourth and fifth assessment reports and the IPCC Technical Paper on Water, as well as all three U.S. National Climate Assessments.
She also is a senior editor of the journal Regional Environmental Change and serves on the editorial board of another, Ethics in Science and Environmental Policy. Additionally, she has been appointed to more than 60 commissions, committees, science panels and boards.
Her research and publications have focused on climate change, sea-level rise and impacts to coastal communities and ecosystems. Burkett said her job is to examine the known effects and relationships of climate change on U.S. coasts and clearly communicate those impacts to the public and private sectors.
“Dr. Burkett’s expertise ranges from traditional biological themes earlier in her career to her present focus on climate science,” said Dr. Charles Groat, president and chief executive officer of The Water Institute for the Gulf and former director of the USGS. “Virginia vigorously delves into research topics and effectively communicates what she has learned to stakeholders. I believe her success has been substantially underpinned by her communication and people skills, supported by her intelligence and hard work,” Groat added.
According to Burkett, the coastal areas have long provided communities with a multitude of benefits, including food, transportation, beaches, harbors for commerce, and wetlands and estuaries that are critical for fisheries and water resources. She added that because 35 U.S. states, commonwealths and territories have coastlines that border the oceans or Great Lakes, impacts to our coastline systems reverberate throughout our economic, social and natural systems.
Burkett oversees the work of several hundred scientists, technicians and support staff from USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia. She also occasionally works from an office in her hometown of Many, Louisiana, where she and her husband, Don, built a home on 80 acres of managed mixed pine and hardwood forests.
“Don and I have been married 23 years,” she said. “He is the longest-serving district attorney in Louisiana—he just celebrated his 30th year. We met when I was serving as the secretary/director of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. I felt more should be done to prosecute fishing and hunting violators. I went to see Don and pleaded my case. I guess I made an impression.”
Further illustrating Burkett’s commitment to preserving the environment, she, Don and their two sons built their home utilizing a variety of recycled materials, including bricks, pine beams and flooring.
Although their sons are now grown and have homes of their own, two grandchildren often visit the Burketts and have inherited their grandmother’s love of the outdoors. When she’s home, Burkett’s family likes to gather, put on their boots and take long hikes at the home place, exploring creek beds, ponds and observing wildlife.
“At school, my 8-year-old granddaughter was given a homework assignment to use two vocabulary words– conservation and erosion – in a sentence,” Burkett said. “Her mother was looking over the homework and called to read me what Elliana had written, ‘My grandma is a scientist. There is erosion on the coast, and she is trying to save it through conservation,’” Burkett said. “That statement tops the list of my achievements – even an association with the Nobel Prize.”
This article was first published in SFA's Sawdust magazine. Donna Parish is Sawdust editor and assistant director of creative services in the Office of University Marketing and Communications.