If I ever get around to writing a memoir of my early years in conservation and research, I might title it "Stuck in the Mud." As a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, central Africa, in the late 1990s, I was perpetually filthy between digging fish ponds and cycling through impossible mud holes on the clay dirt road through the jungle.

Not much changed while doing my dissertation research in Australia, looking at the impact of sediment and nutrients on downstream tropical mangrove and coral reef ecosystems . On any given day I might be stuck to my thighs in mangrove muck or down a ditch to get water samples from the sewer-treatment plant outfall.

When I started as Fiji Country program director with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 2009, I was in my early 30s, though I probably came across as about 27. As an expatriate woman from the U.S., fairly short and considerably younger than my NGO director peers, I took steps to transform myself from grotty field biologist to a respectable professional. I started wearing make-up regularly for the first time, bought sensible clothing, and began stepping out of our office 4WD in high heels.

Five years later, I've mostly given up on the make-up and I don't have to try so hard to look "older" as the wrinkles have begun to set in, but the staff downstairs still hear me clomping around in my signature stilettos.

Yet more importantly than just changing my appearance, I worked to build the reputation of WCS in Fiji as an organization that produces quality work for the benefit of Fiji's environment and people. My catch phrase to our staff might as well be, "That's good, but we can do better." We realized that we may be one small office on a small Pacific island, but we can be leaders in our field of marine conservation and fisheries management.

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