Faces of the Foundation: Laurel Larsen

Laurel Larsen
posted: 1/29/2018
listed in Fellows

Laurel Larsen spends about a month out of each year in some of the country’s most delicate and critical ecosystems – South Florida’s Everglades, Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta, and the streams and rivers of Sonoma County, California. Her goal? Nothing less than saving these wetlands from the climate and ecological forces that threaten their survival. Her tools? A combination of complex computational simulations and swamp muck, a lifelong sense of awe for the wetlands, and the passion to share it.

“I was pretty feral as a kid,” Larsen recalls, thinking back to a childhood spent within spitting distance of central Florida’s vast wetlands. Her own mother’s career as a wetlands researcher, and a summer class spent canoeing around the swamps, directly inspired Larsen’s present work, using a combination of field and lab experiments and powerful simulations to understand and predict how flowing water builds up and destroys wetlands.

When she went to the University of Colorado, Boulder, for her PhD, Larsen found the perfect advisor for her interest in simulating ecosystems and flowing water, but all the funding available was for work on coral reefs – except for her Hertz Fellowship. “I wouldn’t have been able to work on the Everglades without the backing of the Hertz Foundation,” she says.

After graduate school, Larsen worked for the US Geological Survey, applying her thesis work to the restoration and protection of large swaths of the Everglades. Now at the University of California, Berkeley, Larsen continues to apply her insights from that work to the preservation of other wetland ecosystems around the US.

But she knows she can’t do it alone. To inspire a new generation of conservationists, Larsen wrote a children’s book, One Night in the Everglades, telling her own story of encountering wildlife, frog-hunters, and an ineffable sense of awe during a full day’s work in the Everglades.