YSE Class of ’23: Cameron McKenzie’s Journey to Socially Responsible Environmentalist
After working in rural Kenya and a Neotropical premontane cloud forest canopy in Panama, Cameron McKenzie found his niche in urban forest stewardship.
By Cheryl L. Serra
Throughout his career, Cameron McKenzie ’23 MFS has worked on water quality issues in a remote farming village in Kenya, explored the canopy ecology of a Neotropical cloud forest, and studied urban and community forestry in New Jersey. These varied experiences made it difficult for him to decide which socio-environmental issues to pursue as his research focus — rural or urban regions.
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McKenzie majored in chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University and then earned a certificate in Tropical Forest Landscapes: Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use through the Yale School of the Environment’s Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative. He applied to YSE’s master’s program in forest science after gaining additional experience as an AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassador for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
He says his first-year studies helped him narrow his research focus, especially a forest ecology and dynamics class in which Michelle Spicer, a YSE lecturer and postdoctoral fellow, presented her long-term research on the drivers of epiphyte biodiversity in Neotropical premontane cloud forest canopies. McKenzie was fascinated by her work and continued his studies with her. Last summer, he went to the Santa Fe National Forest in Panama to help Spicer with her research on epiphytes — organisms that spend their entire life in the canopy — documenting their survival and investigating what happens to the organisms when they are moved to varying canopy elevations.
Liza Comita, professor of tropical forest ecology and co-director of the Yale Center for Natural Carbon, who is McKenzie’s adviser, praised his contributions.
“His research advances fundamental questions in the field of plant ecology, specifically by advancing understanding of patterns and drivers of tropical plant diversity,” she says. “His findings are also relevant for predicting impacts of climate change on plant communities and for the use of epiphytes in horticulture.”
In New Jersey, McKenzie examined the climate equity dimensions of the state’s largest urban and community forestry grant program. Specifically, he looked at how the grant integrated environmental justice and equity through its approach to urban and community forestry in the state.
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A Society of American Foresters Student Diversity Scholar, McKenzie contributed to equity and inclusion initiatives at YSE, working with the YSE's admissions and financial aid office and Dean Indy Burke to establish the AmeriCorps Strategic Scholarship Partnership. The program awards $5,000 to the top five qualified AmeriCorps alumni in each incoming YSE class in recognition of their academic and leadership potential in environmental and forestry-related fields. McKenzie says the scholarships are a way to recruit top talent to the school, since many prospective YSE students have completed environmental work as part of an AmeriCorps program.
“We thank Cameron for his partnership. Due to his initiative, this strategic scholarship will now provide an opportunity for future AmeriCorps alumni to support their YSE education," says Wendi Hicks, director of enrollment management and financial aid at YSE.
McKenzie says he was honored to study at an institution with the oldest graduate forestry program in the country. The program, he says, helped him to find his way and his niche — pursing a doctorate in environmental anthropology focusing on urban rather than tropical forests. He plans to return to New Jersey after commencement to focus on urban forest stewardship.
"YSE gave me the chance to find myself as a socially responsible environmentalist," he says.