Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio: Research and Resilience

by Ted Jou '99

Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio ’93 (@cristina_rdr) works at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City. The Magnet Foundation spoke with her in mid-October about her career: 

What is your role at the Rockefeller Foundation? 

I’m actually a senior associate director, and I help to lead our programs on environment issues, which has mainly been focused on climate change and building resilience to the impacts of climate change for poor and vulnerable people all around the world. A lot of my work has been focused in South and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and a little bit here in the U.S. too. And now I’m helping to lead a new initiative focused on marine conservation issues and how to preserve our marine environment and in particular deliver benefits to small-scale fishing communities. Mainly what I do is I help develop strategies for our grant-making efforts and lead a team in developing new initiatives and managing/executing ongoing initiatives and evaluating projects and progress and building support for the issues that we care about and the change we want to see in the world. 

Can you talk about any specific grants or things that are happening on the ground? 

Cristina Rumbaitis Del Rio (Rockefeller Foundation)
Sure. One of my proudest areas of work is that I’ve been involved with is something called the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, which is a network of ten now-going-on forty cities in South and Southeast Asia that are proactively looking at what climate change means to them and trying to take measures to reduce the impacts of climate change. In the past few weeks, one of the cities we’ve been working with in India has launched an early-warning system for flooding. This has been a very heavy monsoon season, and the early-warning system gave them more anticipation of when flooding events did occur. Unfortunately, flooding did occur, but at least they got more anticipation and could get cars, assets, and people out ahead of time.

One of the cities that we have been working in in Vietnam is currently being hammered by a typhoon, and some of the work we’ve been supporting there has been to help female-headed households make investments to improve their housing … by doing things like securing the roof better so you don’t lose your roof with heavy winds. That is a tangible example of the sorts of things that people need to do and invest in to build resilience. And the funding will go to help more cities do the same sorts of things that are needed to build resilience. 

Do you get to see your efforts in practice? 

Yeah - Not enough time in the field, but I’ve gotten to go to most of the places where we have been working in, and getting to talk to the people there and getting to talk to our partners who receive the grants and are the ones actually doing the work.. And to me, the most rewarding thing about my job is when you get to see something change in the world on an issue that you care about and see how that happens; ; seeing people who believe in their ideas and believe that change can happen going out there and doing it. 

When did you join the Rockefeller Foundation? How did you get involved with the work that you’re doing? 

I joined in 2006, first as a consultant to help them landscape opportunities in the climate change space, and before that I was working at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, which is a bit of a think tank and research institution that also implements projects focused on sustainable development. I had been doing some work in Africa around agro-forestry issues and biodiversity protection and had also been doing research in Sri Lanka after the Indian Ocean tsunami on issues of vulnerability and the role of ecosystems in reducing vulnerability. That research got me on the radar screen for Rockefeller and they brought me in to do what was supposed to be a quick and dirty piece of work and I ended up staying now for almost seven years. I think my initial gig with Rockefeller was just supposed to be 3 months long. 

What were you doing before the Columbia Earth Institute? Were you in school before that? 

Yeah, I was in school before that. I got a Ph.D. in Forest Ecology at the University of Colorado in 2004. 

What did you for your Ph.D. in Ecology? Was it the same kind of work? 

It was fairly different from what I’ve done since. It was literally looking at a forest; half of it was destroyed by a big, catastrophic windstorm. And then half of that area was logged by the Forest Service as a means of speeding up the rates of regeneration of the forest. And I was comparing the effects of logging with the areas that were left unlogged, and also the effects of the blow-down disturbance. And then when I was almost done with all of my Ph.D. work, a big fire came through the forest and burned a lot of my plots, so then I studied the effects of fire and wind disturbance and logging. It was a high-elevation spruce fir forest, so I would spend my summers out in the woods. I felt like a baby tree doctor at times. I would measure how quickly the seedlings were growing, and I had them all tagged and taking soil samples and stuff like that, which was fun.

Did you make a purposeful move from research into policy or is that something that just happened?


It wasn’t purposeful in the sense that I really plotted out my career, but I think it’s a much better fit for me, and I knew that I liked using science; I liked the power of scientific knowledge, but I always felt better being the one using and communicating the science rather than the one in the lab asking the next set of questions and developing the next proposal and framework. It just felt better for me to be more on the applied side, so when I moved to the Earth Institute I was doing more applied research but was still primarily a research scientist. And it wasn’t until I came to Rockefeller that I made the full leap out of academia and research and am now a user of research and a funder of research and that feels like a better fit for me.

I have so many friends that are research scientists and I have so much respect for them. The ability to come back every day and ask the next question and strive for answers is really admirable.

What did you study in college? Were you also doing ecology in college?

Yeah, same kind of stuff. I was doing environmental sciences.

Was that what you were interested in back in high school at Blair?

Yeah, definitely. I loved environmental sciences. My senior thesis I got to go out to Alaska to look at rates of recovery following the Exxon Valdez spill, which was really fun. You can see that recovery and resilience is a major theme for me.

Do you remember who you worked with on that senior project?

I worked with the AP Biology teacher … Ms. George. We took all these great field trips with the Chesapeake Bay with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Do you have any other memories of Blair that had an impact on you?

I remember the teachers were just very caring. I remember one time; I think it was Mr. Gotwals. I had three final exams on one day, and I think he could tell how stressed I was, and just sort of took me aside and said, “You’re doing too much,” and “What can I do to help?” and I think he let me take my chemistry final a day later. That doesn’t always happen in public schools, and I felt like teachers really knew me as an individual and really cared. I remember the geometry teacher … Mr. Walstein, who I was a bit scared of. All of them at some point or another helped me grapple with something that I wasn’t getting and took personal time and effort to help me out.

You were in both the CAP and the Magnet Program. How was that?

It was intense. I’m not sure it was a good idea in retrospect. I don’t think I ever worked as hard as I did in high school. I was just very stressed with so many academic classes, but it was good. It was fun to indulge the different sides of my personality and I really appreciated the CAP and all of the skills that helped me develop: writing and communicating and things that have really been helpful to me in this part of my career. As an anecdote, I didn’t take gym class. I got out of taking gym so I could take eight academic classes a day, and I got out of it by signing up for a health club that I had to sign in twice a week just to prove that I went there. And I would go and sign in and go in a steam room and read my English book or do my Geometry homework in the steam room. I got no physical exercise whatsoever! That was really bad of me!

Even though it was intense to do both [Magnet and CAP], it was good experience socially to have that mix of friends and people.

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