Seeing fewer years ahead and more behind me as a teacher, I often think back over the students who have passed through my classrooms and wonder how many will truly make a difference in the world.
One that always comes to mind is Midori Paxton, a student in my environmental studies seminar more than 20 years ago when I first began teaching at Yokohama City University.
Since then, the lives of both Midori and her husband, Hugh, have remained intertwined with mine, personally and professionally, beginning when Midori graduated from YCU and took a job with The Japan Times.
Hugh, too, worked for The Japan Times, writing columns for the Nature/Travel page for several years.
Today, whenever my students are fearful of English, changing jobs or following their dreams, I never tire of sharing Midori’s experiences with them. Over 20 years ago, when taking chances was even less acceptable, Midori developed her English (in Japan!), changed jobs often and followed her dream.
She has been a United Nations Volunteers Information Officer in Somalia, a UNV Field Officer in Tanzania, an environmental writer, an NGO consultant and a university lecturer in Japan, and worked for 10 years in Namibia with the UN Development Program.
Midori is now stationed at the UNDP in Bangkok as a regional technical advisor for biodiversity and ecosystems, working to preserve hundreds of thousands of hectares of habitat across Asia, ensuring that threatened plant and animal species will survive for future generations.
Below is an email interview with Midori that explores her education and career.
Where did your career begin?
Interestingly, my first full-time job was with The Japan Times on the Weekly. When I was a student, I had part-time jobs working for foreign correspondents based in Tokyo (The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times), which helped me to get the competitive Japan Times job.
What is your educational background?
I studied international relations for my undergraduate degree at Yokohama City University, with one year at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. I chose international relations because I wanted to work in an international arena.
After working in Japan for several years I did a Master’s in Environment and Development at the Geography Department, University of Cambridge.
How did you develop the English skills that are so important to your career?
My first trip outside Japan (my first time to fly, too!) was a visit to Korea when I was 19. I grew up in Yokohama and became interested in English in high school, taking a class by a Japanese English teacher who had studied in Chicago and could actually speak English, which was rare in those days.
Hearing about his interaction with foreign culture, I became interested in studying overseas. I did some extra English course work with the teacher, in particular writing; listened to NHK Radio English conversation courses; and occasionally took English conversation classes at a language school in Tokyo.
When I was 20, I went to travel around France, Spain and the U.K., and decided that I would go to study English in the U.K. Just before I turned 21, I enrolled in a language school in the county of Kent for one year. After three months at the school, it became boring to study just language, and I decided to apply to join the University of Kent in Canterbury for one year.
When I started taking international-relations courses at the university, I regretted my decision, as I couldn’t understand half of what the lecturers were saying. But I used a tape recorder and borrowed notes from an English friend, and eventually ended up getting better marks in exams than the friend!
English language and interaction with people from different nationalities has obviously helped a lot in my career with the United Nations — writing ability in particular, which I gained through working as a staff writer for The Japan Times and also from my English husband, who has been very important in my work.
What were you doing in Namibia?
For the first three years from 2000, I was a junior professional officer funded by the Japanese government. During those years, I established the Environment Unit within the UNDP country office, which expanded rapidly, both in terms of our project portfolio and staff numbers. Within three years we had five full-time professional staff in the unit managing a portfolio of $40 million.
From 2004 to 2010, I worked for UNDP as a project coordinator based at the Directorate of Parks and Wildlife Management at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. I managed development and implementation of an $8 million project to strengthen Namibia’s Protected Areas Network.
What are you doing now at UNDP in Bangkok?
I currently work as a regional technical adviser: biodiversity and ecosystems in the global UNDP Biodiversity and Ecosystem team under the Energy and Environment Group, Bureau of Development Policy. I’m stationed at the UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Center, which supports 24 countries through UNDP country offices. My main job is to support government counterparts in developing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management projects.
What countries are you working in and what projects are you doing?
Currently I cover six countries: China, Mongolia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bhutan and Myanmar. We have a variety of projects, but our three key strategies for biodiversity conservation are integrating biodiversity and ecosystem management in development and sector planning processes; strengthening the sustainability of protected areas, such as national parks, as a cornerstone of biodiversity; and enhancing ecosystem resilience under changing climate conditions.
For example, I have projects in Mongolia, working to increase financing for protected area management in the country. Currently, although the protected-area system covers nearly 20 percent of the country, the government is investing too little, compromising its ability to fulfill biodiversity conservation objectives.
Our project is strengthening institutional and individual capacities for protected-area management. For example, we are supporting the government to evaluate the value and potential contributions of the protected-area system, looking at different values, including tourism, watershed services and carbon sequestration. The results will be used to make the case for increased government investment in protected areas.
In China and Bhutan, we have been supporting conservation of wild relatives of crops to conserve genetic diversity. A large number of crop species trace their birth to central and eastern China, and the number of wild relatives is correspondingly big. It has been estimated, for example, that of about 1,200 crop species harvested worldwide, 600 are found in China, and of those, up to half originated in China.
Rice, wheat and soybeans are the three most widely cultivated crops, not only in China but also around the world. Wild relatives of these three crops can be found in China with extensive distribution over large areas and with high diversity, and these will become increasingly valuable as “reservoirs” of genes adapted for extreme climatic conditions.
What are the pleasures of your job?
Being able to work for global biodiversity conservation, which I want to devote my life to; being able to contribute to the sustainable development of countries; and being able to work independently planning my own trips and work. I’m also lucky to have a very good boss who trusts my ability and judgment, providing me a lot of room for taking the initiative.
Also being able to visit some of the most beautiful places in the region and to have a chance to see some rare wildlife on work trips, as well as being able to contribute to protecting areas and species. Meeting with some amazing people, too, be they UNDP colleagues, government and NGO counterparts, scientists and others.
What are the frustrations?
Bureaucracy and the complacencies of some governments, and the enormity of the threats to biodiversity — I sometimes feel that our efforts are just a drop in the ocean. It seems no matter how much we do, the problems just get bigger, with pressure on biodiversity from economic interests and corruption.
But amazingly, I can’t think of that many frustrations!
What advice do you have for Japanese university students interested in global and environment-related careers?
In your life, what you want to do and what you want to contribute to, these should come first, rather than how you can have a good career.
Be bold and stick to your dreams — what you want to do — rather than worrying about your future and your career, especially when you’re in your 20s and 30s!
Take initiatives and introduce yourself to people who are doing what you are interested in, so you can gain knowledge and tips. During university gain some practical experience in your field, for example through volunteering.
And always aim a little higher than you think you can reach. With your interest and passion, you will find that you can get there. This has happened many times in my life. Although it is daunting when you try, the rewards are remarkable!
Next month this column will take a closer look at some of Midori’s current projects. Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and Associate Director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at email@example.com.