Student Spotlight: Committed to Managing Natural Resources

Outdoor head-and-shoulders image of Laura Villegas

Graduate student Laura Villegas Ortiz: 'I’ve always cared about the management of natural resources within a dynamic social environment. ... One does not have to be sacrificed to have the other.'

Travel that took her to national parks and forests in the western United States spurred Laura Villegas Ortiz to learn more about environmental policy. Today, as a graduate student at NC State, she’s gaining an interdisciplinary education as she works to better understand the impact that environmental legislation can have on communities.

As Villegas says, “I’ve always cared about the management of natural resources within a dynamic social environment. … One does not have to be sacrificed to have the other.”

Read on to find out more about this creative and competitive student’s approach to work and life at NC State.

What’s your personal and academic background?

I am from Cota, a small Colombian agricultural town in the Andes. At 8,500 feet above sea level, Cota has only 25,000 residents, but it’s just under 20 miles from Bogota, a city of 8 million. I earned an athletic scholarship to attend Montana State University (MSU) for undergraduate school. On the MSU Tennis team, I extensively traveled the western United States, enabling me to explore its national parks and forests. The United States is unique in that it has institutions in place to protect and manage these natural resources; I quickly understood I desired to work in environmental management.

Why did you choose NC State? What motivates you to pursue this degree?

The reputation of the Agricultural and Resource Economics department attracted me; globally, the program ranks 8th for best university and 12th in research institutions. MSU is a land-grant institution, like NC State, and has strong connections with the ARE program at NC State. In fact, many of my MSU professors graduated from NC State. I am interested in this degree because I’ve always cared about the management of natural resources within a dynamic social environment. I believe these two things can co-exist and even help each other — one does not have to be sacrificed to have the other.

What research are you working on now? What do you enjoy most about your research?

Teamed with a diverse group of scientists, I currently evaluate the power of different land use legislation to prevent future flood damages in the coastal Southeast. We test policies that either discourage the paving of parcels or encourage the protection of natural ecosystems, like wetlands. We are assessing how people’s behavior translates into the ecosystem’s ability to continue to provide flood prevention services. I enjoy the interdisciplinary aspect of my work; I work with other economists, but also ecology, forestry and communications specialists. I am also interested in learning about the historical, social and political climate of researched areas to better understand the impact of potential legislation on these communities.

What has your NC State experience been like? What have been your greatest successes? Your greatest challenges?

NC State’s Agricultural and Resource Economics Department is great. My professors are kind, respectful and encouraging, and the Ph.D. working environment is healthy. To me, every day presents challenge. I’ve experienced change and stress, but I find that exhilarating. I like the challenge of needing to be creative and competitive, while also finding a way to be calm.

What activities or hobbies do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Over two years ago, I started powerlifting. This lifestyle is compatible with how I approach life: You work hard and commit to personal growth. Powerlifting is not common among women, but it’s empowering for me. I believe you need to fail to know where you are and where you are going. At the very least, failure is indicative of your current limits and points you toward areas in need of improvement. This practice takes discipline, patience and goal-setting, very similar to the requirements of pursuing a Ph.D. It’s been a great discovery for me. I also have a small, tight-knit Latin American community at NC State. Sometimes, I write opinion columns for Technician, the official student newspaper of NC State. I enjoy working with the editors and receiving their feedback, which helps improve my writing and communication skills.

In six words or less, what’s the best thing about being a grad student at CALS?

Here I learn how to improve!

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