Nicole Buell, ’07, graduated from Richmond having majored in biology and sociology, and managed a schedule packed with Honor Council Chair responsibilities and independent research projects for Dr. Malcolm Hill and the biology department.

As an academically ambitious individual, Buell had always planned to follow in the footsteps of her parents and pursue a doctorate after obtaining her undergraduate degree. But when the time came to start applying to graduate programs, Buell realized that she was not ready to commit to another five years of school before finding a topic she was passionate about and a program that fit her perfectly.

Instead, Buell took a job working for an environmental non-profit in Washington, D.C., which complemented her undergraduate research that examined climate change – specifically looking at how a rise in sea temperature would affect microbial symbionts in marine sponges.  

Buell says the time she spent in D.C. was the break she needed to refocus her interests and recognize what she was passionate about. After two years, Buell felt like she was ready to return to school.

“I needed more expertise to get accomplished what I wanted to,” she said. “I knew that I didn't want to go into academia or research, so I started looking for a program that was focused on the political side of the environment. I was searching for a stepping-stone program that was geared towards the kind of work I'd like to do in the government in the future.”

After researching several programs, Buell decided on Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment, and is currently earning her master’s degree in environmental management.

Students at the Nicholas School select concentrations within the program, such as coastal environmental management, ecosystem science and conservation, and global environmental change. Buell is on the environmental economics and policy track.

“I came to Duke because I was very adamant about finding an interdisciplinary program – something that combined the natural sciences with economics, policy, sociology and business,” Buell said. “Environmental issues are complex and I felt that a diverse education would best prepare me to contribute to the field.”

Buell says the size and the diversity of the student body also contributed to her decision.

“I picked a big program because I've come to understand over the years that I often learn as much from my peers as from my coursework,” she said.  “There are so many different backgrounds – some just out of undergrad, some who have worked a few years and come back to school, international students and a range of undergraduate majors – environmental science, biology, economics, political science, psychology, business and so forth. It's been really enjoyable hearing everyone's stories.”

Similarly, students in the Nicholas School are encouraged to take courses through other schools at the University, such as the Fuqua School of Business, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Duke University School of Law.

Currently, Buell works as the co-director of the Nicholas School Student Council, is a board member on the Triangle Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology, and is a conference-planning member for the Student International Discussion Group. Buell also has an assistantship with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions working on climate change issues.

These activities, paired with her leadership experience in D.C. and her work at Richmond, made Buell a standout candidate for the Doris Duke Conservation Fellowship (DDCF). The DDCF is funded by grants from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. It identifies and supports future conservation leaders by providing financial assistance, cultivating leadership skills through internship opportunities, professional and career development programs, and arranging alumni networking activities.  

Buell was selected as a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow in 2010.  

“I’m really excited for all the opportunities the fellowship will present next year, and for many years following,” she said.  I think the most important thing to me is the realization that others believe in me – that they feel I have the ability and promise to be a leader in the conservation field.”

Next fall Buell will attend a retreat with other fellows from around the country. Throughout the year, financial support will be provided for her to attend conferences and training sessions.

“I'm excited to be exposed to so many motivated people with different interests and backgrounds,” Buell said. “The network of fellows has been described to me as a family.”

In the future, Buell would like to work to improve communication across various fields working toward encouraging environmental conservation.  

“I think one of the biggest challenges to advancing environmental solutions is ineffective communication,” she said. “This is because there are so many players involved. Often, they don't communicate their ideas effectively because of gaps between the parties.

“I'd like to work as a facilitator between the groups and find a way to bridge this gap using my background as a sociologist, scientist, economist and policy analyst to improve environmental decision-making.”