top of page

About Me


Bolete hunting, Arthur's Pass, New Zealand  2017

sophia_dona esperanza.JPG

Playing local taxi during my Maya language immersion program, Yucatan, MX 2023

Balancing the drone before takeoff in Madre de Dios, Peru (July 2015)

Upon returning to the States, I enrolled in a dual-degree program for a B.Sc. in Environmental Science and Resource Management as well as a B.A. in Environmental Studies at the University of Washington. I felt it was important to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences pertaining to nature conservation, therefore, I explored the interdisciplinary aspects of environmental studies. During my time at UW, I was a research assistant for Dr. Jason Scullion in the Vogt Ecosystems Management Lab where I headed the data analysis for a project exploring the causes and potential policy solutions for gold mining in the Manu-Tambopata Corridor (Peru). For the next project, I travel to Peru with Wild Forests & Fauna as a field assistant during two summers where we used a conservation drone to assess habitat type and quality as well as develop a monitoring plan. During my two summers in Peru, I gained a breadth of skills including field experience in remote frontier forests, a variety of remote sensing techniques and data analysis using several different platforms. During this experience, I began to see key gaps in conservation policy development and application. To further explore conservation social science, I began a research assistantship in the Asah Conservation Psychology Lab. Here I realized that while huge strides have been made in understanding nature, little has been done to understand human relationship with—and behaviors towards—nature.


In 2018, she completed a bi-national Master of Science in International Nature Conservation at the University of Göttingen (Germany) and Lincoln University (New Zealand). Through this program I have taken a courses in conservation, tropical ecology, non-timber forest products and wildlife monitoring to better understand the factors influencing neo-tropical deforestation. During my master's, I interned with the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. where I developed a practitioners' handbook for designing and implementing behavior change interventions grounded in behavior change science. 

I conducted my thesis research at the University of Illinois with Dr. Carena van Riper. My master's thesis focused on park user's preferences in Denali National Park and Preserve. We explored how individual values influence people's preferences for different features of the park to improve park management. 

After taking a bridge year to apply to PhD programs, spend time with family and cycling 1,500 miles through Mexico, I began my PhD at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Dr. Lisa Naughton. I received a federal grant (the Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship) to learn Maya Yucateca which will support my research in Mexico exploring deforestation drivers among small landholders. 

“What good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring? Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from someplace else.”
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Research overview 

My research is at the nexus of psychology and tropical forest conservation with the aim of leveraging psychology to increase engagement in pro-environmental behaviors and ultimately increase conservation impact. Specifically my research explores how to increase the effectiveness of financial incentive programs in promoting long-term conservation efforts. Programs like Payments of Ecosystem Services or Conditional cash transfers, while successful in promoting landholders to engage in short-term conservation behavior, raise questions about the lasting impact once payments cease (see Winkler-Schor & Brauer, in press)


I use an interdisciplinary lens to address these issues drawing primarily on conservation science and conservation psychology as well as other disciplines. Environmental problems cannot be solved unilaterally; I strive to be at the nexus of academia, the nonprofit sector and government agencies to engage and empower diverse stakeholder groups to develop multi-faceted solutions for mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss.  


My doctoral research focuses on Mexico's flagship agroforestry Sembrando Vida program, which pays participants to establish organic agroforestry parcels over 5-6  years. Specfically, I explore the interplay of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, habits, and social norms, Sophia uncovers key insights into participants' intentions to persist in conservation behaviors post-program. My research aims to highlight potential avenues for leveraging psychological factors to enhance the design of conservation incentive programs, ultimately bolstering efforts to protect tropical forests and combat climate change. 


Visiting flamingos in the magrove forests of Celestún Biosphere Reserve, Yucatán, Mexico, 2023.

As a Pacific Northwest Native and the daughter of environmental enthusiasts, my childhood filled with environmental education and global exploration. As a six-year-old, I enthusiastically named every native Salal plant, Oregon grape, & Red Cedar that I saw. Plant identification felt like my own personal treasure hunt, and I loved sharing what I learned with my family. My love of nature inspired me to attend the Environmental and Adventure School where I further learned about native species and the Seattle watershed. Then, at 13 I traveled to Venezuela and Peru where I fell in love with the lush Amazon rainforest. The life-changing two months I spent backpacking inspired me to take a gap year after graduating from the International Baccalaureate Program, and South America was my first stop.


Stunned by Latin America’s natural beauty, I was devastated about the great duress that climate change exerts on the Amazon rainforest, the El Calefate glacier and the coastal regions. The verdant rainforests and diverse marine ecosystems that are in danger are not only the resources that these populations rely on for survival, but are integral to their cultural identity.

bottom of page