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Dr. Karen Kovaka

FACULTY AFFILIATE   |   Global Change Center


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(540) 231-4564 •


Life is a product of history. And like the history of humankind, the history of life is chaotic, rarely subject to easy generalizations and simple rules. Biology—the study of life—attempts to bring order to this chaos. It searches for patterns, rules, and organizing principles in a messy, endlessly varied world. In my research, I examine biology’s attempts to understand the complexity of life. I ask what these attempts teach us about the nature of scientific investigation, and I analyze how theories of biological complexity are applied (and misapplied) to problems of environmental ethics and policy. I joined the philosophy department at Virginia Tech an assistant professor in the fall of 2018. I completed my PhD in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in May 2017, and I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Philosophy of Science from 2017 to 2018.


I have two current projects related to global change. The first is an investigation of the problem of unintended consequences in environmental conservation. The aim is to identify features of conservationist interventions (e.g. prescribed burns, ecosystem restoration projects, and wildlife population control measures) that can explain or predict why some interventions achieve their desired aims, while others produce harmful unintended consequences.

The second project examines ethical and epistemic issues related to community science. In collaboration with the Galápagos Alliance, I work with high school students in the Galápagos Islands to study the effects of increased urbanization on an endangered species of sea lion. The results of this research inform philosophical analysis of the challenges of making the scientific process more accessible to non-experts.