Notice of Online Archive

  • This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of the last page update.

    For questions about page contents, contact the Communications Division.

When Jim Sanderson ’71 saw the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for the first time in 1986, he knew he wanted to switch gears from his career in mathematics to the field of conservation.

“As a practicing mathematician at Los Alamos [National Laboratory] I came to realize that anything we could put into an equation, we could solve either analytically or numerically,” he says. “Even if it took a month or a year to run on a computer, we could solve it. I lost interest. I became convinced that problems in biology did not fit into an equation. Living organisms are all different right down to the individual and no equation can describe its complexity.”

Almost 10 years after receiving his Ph.D. in mathematics, Sanderson returned to school in pursuit of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology and wildlife ecology. Five years later he quit his job with Los Alamos and accepted a position in the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International.

He has since focused on the conservation of wild cats, recently capturing the most rare wild cat in the Americas, the Andean mountain cat. He founded the Small Cat Conservation Alliance to support independent efforts of students and researchers working in places important to small cats and other carnivores. His efforts have been the subject of discussion on National Public Radio and been featured in several magazine articles, most recently in Science and Reader’s Digest.

“My position — not a job, but my life — takes me to the front line of wildlife conservation issues,” Sanderson says. “At Conservation International I’m working with others who believe we can change the future. We can and will make a better future. That’s a long, long way from my desk job [at Los Alamos] in New Mexico.”

A mathematics graduate, Sanderson received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. He has co-authored two books, Wildlife Issues in a Changing World and Landscape Ecology: A top-down approach, and published numerous scientific papers.

“I did not throw away my math degree,” he says. “Instead I used it to achieve more than I ever could have otherwise. I learned that I could do anything I wanted to do if I tried hard enough, and when I decided to switch gears, I did so with complete confidence.”

Categorized in: Alumni Profiles