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National Geographic Lauds Alumna’s Work

February 27, 2003

Julie MarchBy Kirsten Beattie

Alumna Julie March was an environmental science major at U.Va. (’96), but with a minor in English language and literature, she’s a "scientist who knows how to communicate."

Those communication skills came in handy while March worked for two years in the countryside of northeast Brazil, teaming up with landless farmers to assess the environmental impact of the agrarian reform movement.

Agrarian reform in Brazil is the process of redistributing land from the hands of a few wealthy landowners to larger numbers of peasants and poor workers.

"Sometimes the process is peaceful, where farmers will petition the government for the land without forceful invasion. But sometimes it’s not peaceful -- farmers will stake out land until they’re able to get it," said March.

While the government has tried to intervene in recent years, conflicts have sometimes escalated to violence and deaths. March’s research combines the political and social movement of agrarian reform with the environmental impact it’s having on the land.

Simply publishing her research is not enough to satisfy March. She’s committed to sharing her knowledge with the farmers to boost their success in cultivating the land. "One of the neat things about this project is that it impacts the people I work with," she said. "A lot of times scientists do a project and never return to the area. I’ve gone back and shared information I’ve found. The people I work with in Brazil probably are not going to read scientific journals, but this information is meant to be shared."

National Geographic was so impressed with March’s work in Brazil that it named her one of its "Next Wave" scientists -- young researchers doing cutting-edge work. In spring 2002, a National Geographic film crew followed March for a week as she worked with a community in the region of Pernambuco. Her work will be featured on the "Next Wave" TV series airing in February and March.

Exposure through National Geographic gave March the opportunity to emphasize her broad approach to ecological problems. "It was a way that the issues surrounding agrarian reform could get some exposure and also a way to showcase an applied ecology project. So much time is spent in science talking about data that sometimes the big picture -- the social and political context that creates the environmental problems -- is not given enough attention."

Before filming, March asked permission from the community to allow the filming while she worked with them. The farmers allowed it based on their trust in March, "and on the condition that they would get to see the film and pictures."

The process was intense and repetitive, March said. "A lot of times you’d have to film something three times, walk the same area three times, ask the same questions three times. The farmers thought it was pretty strange."

Even as March makes her TV debut this month, travel and research remain her top priorities. Working on policy issues with the U.S. Agency for International Development through an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowship, March will be traveling to Honduras and West Africa this spring.

"Next Wave" featuring Julie March will air March 5 at 3:30 p.m. Check out for details.

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