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Jennifer Zavaleta Cheek is a sustainable development scholar who uses quantitative and qualitative methods to better understand complex human-natural systems and advance human dignity. Her research interests are broad, ranging from food and agricultural systems, community forestry management, and human dimensions of biodiversity conservation.


She is an assistant professor at South Dakota State University.  She has the pleasure of leading the Conservation Planning and Park Management Program in the Natural Resource Management Department. Her current projects are about local food systems in South Dakota, women's hunting and fishing groups, and conservation planning. She also serves as a faculty advisor for the SDSU Students' Association

She earned her Ph.D. from the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan in 2019. During her Ph.D., Jennifer was a part of the International Forestry Resources and Institutions Group and was mentored by Arun Agrawal. She was awarded a number of grants and fellowships, including the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship, Borlaug Fellowship in Global Food Security, and the Dow Sustainability FellowshipHer dissertation research used mixed methods to collect monthly surveys from 1,200 households each month for a year in India. She recently published an article in Nature Food that Indian women who consume wild foods have higher dietary diversity than women who do not.  Her dissertation also evaluated how income diversity and women’s empowerment can influence household food security. The results illustrate that current approaches of “women’s economic  empowerment,” that encourage women to earn incomes, may undermine their intended goals.

Her post-doctoral research, with the Miller Research Group, focuses on how biodiversity conservation funding, especially for capacity building initiatives, can have long-term impact on biodiversity outcomes. In addition to using machine learning approaches to analyze 2,500 projects funded by the MacArthur Foundation, she is also using process tracing and other qualitative methods from workshops in Madagascar, Peru, and Bhutan. She recently published an article in Conservation Biology that provides a guide to qualitative attribution methods for evaluation in conservation. In addition, she served on an Expert Panel on Forests and Poverty with the International Union of Forest Researchers (IRFRO) that resulted in a special issue in Forest Policy and Economics.

Jennifer is dedicated to translating her research so that it can improve the lives of people in the communities where she works. To that end, she has participated in workshops to share her research findings with local stakeholders in Malawi and continues to stay engaged with partner NGOs at Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture in India. In addition to her scholarship, Jennifer has shown a dedication to service and extension by leading committees and volunteering in the community.

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