When I Was 17, My Life Changed.

By Taormina Lepore, Earthwatch Student Fellow

At age 17, Taormina Lepore boarded a plane for the very first time on her way to an archaeological excavation as an Earthwatch student fellow, funded by the Durfee Foundation. The two weeks she spent on the dig in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, changed her future career path.

Student fellow Taormina Lepore in 2001 during the Jackson Hole Bison expedition.

Student fellow Taormina Lepore in 2001 during the Jackson Hole Bison expedition.

When I was 17 years old, my life changed.

My eyes were opened to a world outside my comfort zone, a world of science, field work, and new horizons.

When I was 17 years old, I stepped onboard a plane.

It was the first time I’d been on a plane by myself, and this time the flying “aluminum can with wings” would take me from my everyday high school existence in suburban Boston, all the way to an empty, expansive field in the breathtakingly beautiful National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming. I would be there for two weeks, field camping and working with strangers who would become like family.

It was exhilarating and terrifying and intellectually exciting, all at the same time.


When I was 17 years old, I excavated the ancient past.

Without this formative experience, I might not have had the courage to pursue my dreams and goals as a scientist and educator. It started with a few brushes and a few meter-by-meter square plots of archaeological excavation at an ancient midden site, where bison bone fragments and flakes of caramel quartzite lay just beneath the moist soil surface.

When I was 17 years old, I went on an Earthwatch expedition.

And this archaeological expedition kick-started a lifelong passion for experiential education. Thanks to an Earthwatch student fellowship, I was able to test my courage, break out of the norm, and fuel an endless desire to travel, to seek new experiences, and learn about the natural world. I’m almost 32 now, and in the time since my Earthwatch expedition, I’ve gone on to work as a museum educator around the country, as a research paleontologist in graduate school, and as a high school science educator.


With each experience, I find myself referring back to that Earthwatch experience as the baseline for stretching my boundaries.

Before Earthwatch, being actively involved in science was just an idea, and a far-away idea at that. Earthwatch made the idea a reality. I became a lifelong advocate for citizen science, high school field experiences, and outdoor education. And I became a scientist, studying paleoecology through dinosaur tracks and fossilized droppings known as coprolites.

In a recent job as a consultant paleontologist, I regularly visited construction sites to monitor for fossil resources.

I kept my Earthwatch research team sweatshirt with me every day, as a reminder of how one field experience can make an impact on a young student’s life, and allow her to be consistently mindful of how citizen science can change the world.

I think about Earthwatch whenever I’m in the field.

As an educator, I help my students reach past their own comfort zones, and branch out in their scientific interests. I want them to motivate themselves and find encouragement for their passions, and take the leap to always ask questions, to go camping, to try field science. From conservation, to paleontology and archaeology, to our global context as human beings, field work and citizen science are the underpinnings of a transformative education. It certainly transformed me in ways I’m still discovering, even today. I think about Earthwatch when I remind my students that they can do these same kinds of things. Scientific field work is within their reach.

If every student could be given the same opportunity I had to join an Earthwatch expedition, I really believe we would have a more compassionate, more scientifically literate, and more passionate world. I’m grateful every day for being given the chance to change my life and ignite my scientific passion with Earthwatch.

Taormina Lepore in the field in 2015.

Taormina Lepore in the field in 2015.

Applications are now open for our 2017 student fellowships. To learn more, visit our website