Career Spotlight - A Conversation with Masha Kalinina

Career Spotlight - A Conversation with Masha Kalinina

By Chloe Wetzler

The media mostly focuses on the “why?” questions in the world of conservation. Why is the ocean so important? Why should we reduce our single-use plastics and greenhouse gas emissions? Why do we need to create marine protected areas? And so on, but that is the easy part. Just one look at the majestic marine ecosystems makes the urge to protect them come naturally. The mystery of how to do so, on the other hand, is where the true challenge lies, especially for young environmental activists. We witness the number and gravity of environmental crises rising each year. From oil spills, toxic algal blooms, and coral bleaching to the melting of polar ice caps, overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction. We know how pressing and time-sensitive these issues are for the health of our planet. We are already reducing single-use plastics, recycling, composting, and eating less meat. We know every little thing adds up, but we are not satisfied stopping there. But the problem of “how?” stands in our way. We want to know how we can make our passion into a career or a full-time job? What should we study or focus on in school in order to get a job involved in marine conservation? What are the career options out there for those of us who don’t have a specific job in mind, but we know our goal is to make a substantial difference for our oceans, our climate, and our environment?

To help answer some of these questions and highlight opportunities for the next generation of eco-warriors, I interviewed real-life environmental hero Masha Kalinina of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Chloe Wetzler: What exactly do you do?

Masha Kalinina: I am a senior officer for the international conservation unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts. This means I work in international environmental policy.

CW: What does a (pre-covid) week look like in your position?

MK: I work with specific conventions established under the United Nations system, like the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, the Convention on Biological Diversity, or the Convention on Migratory Species. These conventions all operate with representatives from each country. It is my job to inform these representatives about wildlife or animals so they can make the best decisions for the planet. That can be science about the status of a population of species, a recent report about the benefits of protected areas to local economies, etc. I share this information with the delegates to encourage positive action from their governments at the United Nations.

Photo courtesy of Masha Kalinina

CW: What is the path you took to get where you are today?

MK: After college, I went to law school with a focus on the environment. Many law schools have animal welfare or environmental tracks. Originally, I had wanted to work on the Hill, so I interned with the judiciary committee in the House of Representatives. However, frequent changes in leadership made it hard to keep a position. What I do now is similar to the Hill but just on the international scale. UN policy is passed in a similar manner as domestic laws, we are essentially trying to pass the equivalent of bills.

I also studied international topics which are applicable and useful for learning how the global arena of policy functions. I did not know what kinds of jobs were available in that area before. There are many opportunities with Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) that operate at the UN level. They work on policy related to climate, biodiversity, and animal conservation. These include organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, the National Resource Defense Council, the Humane Society of the US, Conservation International, The Animal Welfare Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society -- all of these entities are places you could intern or get a job with. Some universities even have programs or connections where you can travel with some of these organizations to global meetings where decisions about policy are being made, called Conferences of the Parties (COP). If you can get that experience, it is helpful for applying to intern or work at an NGO.

CW: Is your position a typical career in environmental law?

MK: International environmental policy positions exist in most major international environmental nonprofits. Not everyone in these positions have law degrees, some have science or public policy backgrounds.

CW: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

MK: I care deeply about animals. It is why I entered this career. When I succeed, animals or wildlife become protected. For instance, I worked to get lions, leopards, and giraffes listed under the Convention on Migratory Species. I was successful, together with many colleagues, and now these animals have greater protections under UN policy. My current project is trying to get 30% of the Ocean protected by 2030 (#30x30). If we get anywhere near that number, I’ll know I have played a hand in this enormous environmental achievement. In this line of work I can really see the fruits of my labor in a short amount of time.

My second favorite thing is getting to travel and interact with so many different cultures. I am from Russia but grew up here in the United States. I crave interaction with people of different backgrounds and experiences. Working in international environmental policy, in one day I get to have conversations with a Maori indigenous leader and a Deputy Minister of Environment of Seychelles and the supporting team for the UK Minister for the Pacific and Environment. It is incredibly stimulating and enriching. This is something I really miss in the current virtual period.

Photo courtesy of Masha Kalinina

CW: Do you have a favorite project or campaign you have worked on?

MK: I used to work for the effort to end the trophy hunting of wild animals. I debated trophy hunters on live television in Las Vegas when they held trophy hunting conventions. I helped push the needle on the understanding of animal cruelty and played a part in a cultural shift. It was really fulfilling to see the changing public attitude toward this horrific “entertainment”.

CW: What is the most challenging thing about what you do?

MK: We face strong opposition from large industries such as oil, gas, mining, fishing, big agriculture. It is frustrating when their message prevails. It helps push you harder and be more creative in addressing decision-makers and legislators. There is a right and a wrong path when it comes to the future of our planet. I deeply believe in what I advocate for, which helps me be persuasive with leaders in the face of very well-funded interest groups.

CW: What advice do you have for teens who are passionate about helping the environment?

MK: Don’t sell out. When you are going through higher education there are many opportunities to take the easy job and start making money. It is appealing to get your feet on the ground, afford a nice apartment, be able to buy a car. So, sometimes we make decisions that are not truly in pursuit of our passions to do those things. For instance, early on in my career, I had to take a $20,000 pay cut to get my dream job. It meant living modestly, but now I can see the effects of my work and the experience I gained was more valuable than that $20,000 dollars. It put me on the right path. So, just stick with it and know that there are so many opportunities if you keep looking. Keep researching, reading articles (like this one), and don’t assume that the typical university career counselor will share with you all of the cool jobs that are out there.

Editor's Note: Chloe Wetzler is a senior EarthEcho Water Challenge Ambassador, a group of young leaders working to engage their communities in water quality monitoring and conservation efforts while increasing their knowledge of water science and gaining skills to expand their work in this field. She is a second year student at the University of Virginia where she studies Biology and Spanish.

Masha Kalinina is a Senior Officer with the International Conservation Unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts where she coordinates Pew's cross-campaign efforts with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Learn more about Masha’s work and efforts to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 in this video of our “Dive into 30x30” panel from the 2020 EarthEcho Youth Leadership Summit.