Of Brownies, Bears, and Birthdays

A researcher examines huckleberry plants.

A researcher examines huckleberry plants.

By Scott Kania, Earthwatch CEO

Last August, I turned 65 years old. I’m in complete denial about turning old – it’s just a number and all of that stuff. I had no interest in sitting around listening to people remind me of how many birthdays I’d had. When my team told me we needed a couple more people on our new grizzly project, Climate Change, Huckleberries, and Grizzly Bears in Montana, I jumped (or whatever 64-year-olds do to show excitement) at the chance. Luckily, my daughter Kristen had some time before grad school started and wanted to join me. The adventure was on.

I’d been to Montana before, but I’d never heard of Swan Valley. Nestled between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Mission Range, Swan Valley is a hidden gem away from the tourist madness of Glacier National Park and the recreational buzz of Flathead Lake. As the name implies, there are mountains on both sides of the valley, nearly as breathtaking as Glacier National Park, but much more peaceful and remote.

Our Earthwatch team was small, but spirited. Besides Kristen and myself, there was Sue – an incredibly fit and adventurous woman from British Columbia, who liked her teardrop camper so much, she eschewed a bed in the house and slept there instead. We also had two women from Japan on the team: Yamata and Mei. They were both fun-loving and endlessly curious, and great cooks.

Scott with his teammates in Montana.

Scott with his teammates in Montana.

I saw my first grizzly in Glacier on my honeymoon many years ago. Yes, we were in grizzly country on our honeymoon, but that’s a different story. The bear was a ways off across a valley, but slowly heading our way. He was stopping to pull down 20-foot-tall lodgepole pines, and exploring the roots for grubs and ants, I suppose. What a magnificent animal – so powerful and amazingly graceful. We were a safe distance away, so we were able to enjoy watching him forage. Later that day, we made our way back along the same trail. It occurred to me that the bear, continuing on his path, would be intersecting the trail. He was likely to be long gone, but we still did a lot of loud talking and car key jingling, so as not to surprise him. Everyone knows that grizzlies love berries and salmon, but I also think they have an eye for beauty, based on the incredible places they choose to live.

Speaking of berries, according to our researchers, huckleberries are an important food resource for grizzly bears, comprising about 15 percent of their diet in Glacier National Park and surrounding areas. These high-energy fruits are crucial for bears in their effort to gain weight for winter hibernation and reproduction. Changes in climate, however, such as warming temperatures, varying levels of rainfall, increases in insects that damage leaves, and declines in pollinator populations can alter the availability and size of these berries. In the northwestern U.S., climate change threatens to alter the timing and abundance of huckleberries. What remains unknown, however, is which changes in particular will have the most significant impacts and how they interact.

A female grizzly with her two cubs.

A female grizzly with her two cubs.

The research we were supporting will help scientists generate maps that can serve as an “early-warning system” for regions that will have low huckleberry productivity in a given year. These “low-productivity” regions may be places where bears and other species need to roam outside of their typical range in search of food. Predicting this movement in advance could help wildlife managers prevent conflict with humans, one of the biggest challenges to bear viability.

As I said, the study site is between two mountain ranges, so while the study sites were in several different locations, all in Swan Valley – even if the actual sites were deep in the woods – the drives to and from had breathtaking views.

The views from the expedition, located in Flathead National Forest.

The views from the expedition, located near Flathead National Forest.

Earthwatch lead scientist Dr. Tabitha Graves joined us in the field the first few days of the project. She is totally passionate about her work with grizzlies, and knew absolutely everything about the ecology of the area. She was also very focused on making sure everyone had a good time. Her lead field tech, Jessie, is a recent college grad, wise and mature beyond her years, but with boundless energy and a childlike wonderment about all things in the natural world. You can’t have a bad day when you are with Jessie.

On one of the field days, we did something called an absence/presence survey, which meant that we took a long hike and stopped at 15-minute intervals to look for the absence or presence of various bees, berries, and other bear food sources. It was interesting work, but it didn’t feel like work, since it was actually a gorgeous hike up to a glacial lake at the foot of some rock spires – just like a postcard. The water looked refreshing. No, make that cold. But, that didn’t stop Jessie from jumping in for a swim. She was quickly followed by Mei. I got cooled off from our hike just watching them.

On our way back from the field one afternoon, we wheeled into the general store nearby for ice cream. The sign in front had three words, each starting with a “B” – beer, bait, and something else. It should have been brownies. At the register, they had a tray of freshly made brownies. As an admitted chocoholic I was in heaven. I figured we had earned them, so I bought a bagful. Don’t get the wrong impression. I’m a chocoholic, but not cruel. I shared them with the team. I kind of had to, since they saw me buy them. We all agreed they would have been delicious even without a full day of exercise and fresh air. They also make a terrific birthday cake, especially when sprinkled with delicious huckleberries. It’s always good to go home, but it was really tough to leave this time. We had such a great time with the team and the field crew. I also think I share the grizzlies’ love for beautiful places.

To learn more about this important research, visit our expedition webpage: Climate Change, Huckleberries, and Grizzly Bears in Montana.

On Living Sustainably

By Kyle Gaw

It’s said that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings has the power to create a chain reaction altering the course of weather forever. A simple ripple in the air, something so innocent and forgettable, has the ability to change the course of history – and the same can be said for you.

It’s easy for a concerned citizen to feel distraught in today’s environmental and political climate. As the signs of climate change become more apparent, many politicians seem to be working harder at burying their heads in the sand rather than trying to pass policy to prevent it from worsening. Undoubtedly, this raises the question of how much impact one person can really have in the fight to address climate change.

That’s not the case at Earthwatch. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in our nearly 50 years of operation, it’s the power of one person to ignite monumental change.

We, as a society, are standing at a crossroads. We can choose to follow the lead of select elected officials and ignore the signs of climate change; or we can start flapping our proverbial wings by taking up arms in the fight to save the planet.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, “that’s all well and good but how do I begin?” Our advice is to start with simple changes you can make today. No one person is going to change the world overnight but by adding sustainable practices into everyday life, we all can lower our impact on the environment and start to decrease the effects of climate change.

Below we’ve compiled a few easy things that you can start doing to be more sustainable (and added in a few animal GIFs to encourage you to take the next step). Let us know which of these you plan on doing or add some ideas of your own in the comments section below.

Get Informed

If knowledge is power, our first line of defense against climate change naturally should be to learn as much as we can.

Subscribe to blogs, watch documentaries, talk to scientists, do anything you can do to learn about how to protect the environment and improvements you can make in your daily life to reduce your carbon footprint.

Get Involved

There is strength in numbers. Get involved in your local community groups.

Try finding a green living or sustainability Meetup close to you. Not only will you feel more connected to the cause, you might even make some friends along the way.

Increase your energy efficiency

Wherever you are right now, look around and take a quick audit of everything that you have plugged in/everything consuming electricity. Now look to see how many of those things have an energy star label on them. If you’re not able to count them all on one hand, this one is for you.

Start by turning off the lights in rooms that you’re not occupying, unplug unused appliances, hang clothing when weather permits rather than using a machine. The added bonus to this sustainable tip will be apparent when you look at your bank account at the end of the month and you see that extra money looking back at you.

Eat wisely

Think outside the box, literally. Start off by choosing to eat less processed foods, which typically require a lot more energy to produce.

Plant a vegetable garden in your backyard to start producing your own food. Dedicate one meal a week to meat-free eating since ~18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy farms.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

This one should be an old hat by now but it’s worth repeating. Try to avoid creating more landfill by reusing what you already have for new purposes. Recycle whatever you can’t give new life to.

Take things a step further by composting your food scraps and other biodegradable materials or write to your local stores and product manufacturer to let them know you want them to reduce packaging on products.

Let polluters pay

Carbon taxes are one of the most effective ways to reduce the nation’s climate impact. Check to see if similar policies are enacted where you live and, if they’re not, contact your elected representative to begin the process of getting one on the books.

Green your commute

Commuting every day by yourself can get lonely and add unneeded carbon to the atmosphere. Switch up your daily routine and test out other means of transportation.

Start by dedicating one day a week or even one a month to create a more sustainable commute. Consider walking, biking, taking public transit, or if all else fails, carpool to work.

But don’t stop there, the United Nations has created a fantastic user guide to saving the world for even the laziest among us.

Questions or comments about this post? Feel free to contact us at communications@earthwatch.org. We’d love to hear from you!

Four Ways Earthwatch Teen Expeditions Have Inspired Young Scientists

The sun sets on the expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park. (Courtesy Mike Mao)

The sun sets on the expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park.

Nationwide, teens are demanding for their voices to be heard. In Florida, an emboldened group of students are working tirelessly to write op-ed pieces, hold interviews with the media, and organize rallies and demonstrations, all in an effort to gain support for common sense gun laws.  In Kansas, there are six teenagers running gubernatorial races in an effort to help shape the policies that will impact the economy and environment that they will inherit. In July, thousands of teens are expected to march on Washington D.C. for the Zero Hour Youth March with the goal of “holding adults and elected officials accountable for their legacy of destruction and inaction when it comes climate change.”

Even amidst this incredible uprising of teen voices, there are still adults who doubt the power of teenagers, who view teenagers as “too young” or “too inexperienced” to really make a change.

That’s not the case here at Earthwatch. We’re well aware of exactly how much teenagers are capable of when given the opportunity.

Below are four examples of such teens whose perspectives of the world were permanently altered after fielding on an Earthwatch Teen Expedition

The view from the expedition Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge. (Courtesy Matti Urlass)

The view from the expedition Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge.

1. An unexpected, life-changing adventure

Judith Santano experienced a lot of firsts when she traveled from her home in urban Los Angeles to participate in the Earthwatch expedition Spotting Songbirds in the Rockies. It was the first time she was able to experience a literal breath of fresh air, the first time she saw a bear in the wild, and the first time she realized that there was “more than one way to love science.”

Judith joined her first Earthwatch expedition as a teenager with a love for science and left with a new sense of direction to take in life, even if she did not know it at the time. By experiencing real field science, and knowing that the research she was conducting was a part of a larger effort to protect these songbirds, Judith was given the opportunity to take a step back and appreciate the beauty in nature. She credits the experience as “giving her the opportunity to fall in love with the earth.”

“Although I didn’t completely know it when I was 15, Earthwatch would influence the path I would take in my studies, career, and life.”

Now pursuing a degree from Stanford University in Earth Systems, Judith hopes to study the impact humans have on the environment and promote the importance of science education.

Teens tackle mountain peaks on the expedition Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees.

Teens tackle mountain peaks on the expedition Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees.

2. A step outside the comfort zone and into a career path

In 2006, when Moria Robinson joined Earthwatch in Arizona to study the relationship between caterpillars and climate change, she had no idea how the experience would shape her life. For Moria – who has a love of science, nature, and bugs – this Earthwatch expedition was a trifecta. She spent two weeks in Arizona helping Earthwatch scientists collect data on the impact of these insects on their environment.

Ten years later, Moria went on to run her very own caterpillar research lab at the University of California, where she simultaneously pursued a PhD. in Biology, in large part due to her experience in the field as a high school student.

3. A test of courage, a lifetime of resolve

Few can say that they knew what they wanted to do with their lives at the age of 17. For Taormina Lepore, it wasn’t a question of what she wanted to do but how she’d be able to get there. Before joining her first Earthwatch Expedition as a teenager, Taormina had dreams of pursuing a career as a scientist and an educator. Being actively involved in the field of science seemed like a nice idea to her, but without a clear path to follow, that idea seemed unattainable.

That’s until Taormina packed her bags and boarded a flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming as an Earthwatch fellow. Little did she know that along with uncovering ancient fossils, she’d also uncover the path to pursue her dream career that she’d been in search of. Taormina credits her two weeks fielding with Earthwatch as the reason she was able to build a career that allowed her to travel around the country as a museum director, as a research paleontologist, and as a high school science educator.

I think about Earthwatch when I remind my students that they can do these same kinds of things. Scientific fieldwork is within their reach.”

Teens band together on the expedition Helping Endangered Corals in the Cayman Islands. (Courtesy Gabrielle Schavran)

Volunteers band together on the expedition Helping Endangered Corals in the Cayman Islands.

4. A taste for field work, a deeper understanding of conservation

When Taylor Rhoades was 16 years old, she had it all figured out. She was going to study veterinary medicine, work with animals in the field, then retire working for a zoo; simple as that. In her mind, the best path to conserving the environment was through protecting animal life. Her parents, however, while supportive of her dreams, urged her to get a more well-rounded picture of what conservation really looks like. That’s where Earthwatch entered the picture.

Joining an Earthwatch expedition gave Taylor the chance to live her dream, even if just for a few weeks.

Once she entered college at Texas A&M University, Taylor was able to draw the connection between her work in the field studying animal life and the role that humans play in conservation. She is now working to educate the public to take action to save all types of animals.

“Earthwatch was the only organization that I found that would allow someone my age to actually go out and do hands-on work in the field, working directly with wildlife and conservationists.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Earthwatch’s Teen Expeditions and student groups, please contact Earthwatch at info@earthwatch.org or by calling 1-800-776-0188.

Scientific Research: A ‘Labor of Love’

A meadow of wildflowers in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy Jared Biunno)

A meadow of wildflowers in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy Jared Biunno)

By Jared Biunno, Earthwatch Volunteer

What are we to do?! November 9th, 2016, the election has changed everything and with that change has come a newly invigorated assault on environmental protections and policies. After almost a year of signing online petitions, reading Washington Post articles and donating to the Sierra Club, my fight against climate change existed only in the digital sphere. That approach proved to be mentally exhausting, and so my inner voice told me to get my eyes off my laptop and out into the world. Do something practical, something you can touch, on the ground, out in the field, literally in the dirt!

Fast forward to September 10th, 2017, and I’m stepping foot in my very first national park as one of ten team members on an Earthwatch expedition – Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park.

I grew up in a suburban household with parents that were either too busy or too uninterested to integrate nature into our childhood. On vacations, we would go on cruises or to resorts. On sunny summer afternoons, we would go to the local pool or the crowded beach. Nature simply wasn’t part of my family’s everyday. Naturally, making first ground at Acadia National Park was like stepping into a wonderland. The air! Oh my goodness, the air. Crisp and fresh with a smell that was the most natural and pleasant aroma to ever fill my nostrils. If the first goal of my Earthwatch expedition was to enhance my appreciation of the natural world, I was off to a good start.

After a brief night of meeting my team and going through the program itinerary, we began the real work at the crack of dawn. Here is what I have to say about my experience during this expedition: it is real work. Hard work. It’s not a vacation, it’s not a light, relaxing getaway. We arrived out in the field and you could feel the intimidation amongst the team. At that moment we knew this was not going to be a “fun little science trip.” This was going to be rough and tough data collection, at the very least.

On my first day, I, along with some of my other team members, began to naturally complain and sigh about how rigorous and tedious our load was. We were hunched over, digging through the brush, branches whacking us in the face, counting berries and sweating from head to toe. We had a predetermined list of tasks to accomplish in a set amount of time and there was no special treatment. This was not a Carnival cruise by any means.

However, as we slowly pushed through the first day, the second day, the third day, I began to notice something. Our team of “citizen scientists” had begun to gel. Our confidence grew, our complaining subsided and we began to build efficiency in our work. I have to admit, it was a sight to behold. Here are brand marketers, a chef, a school teacher, people from all walks of life adapting and growing, developing systems and methods to execute the work faster and better. After a little while, we started to really enjoy the process through the teamwork and camaraderie. The actual work did not get any less tedious or tiresome, but the pride amongst the team continued to grow and grow. We were not going to fail! This was a group of human beings with a brash determination to finish the day with success; there was simply no other option.

A team of Earthwatch volunteers in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy Jared Biunno)

A team of Earthwatch volunteers in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy Jared Biunno)

We had begun to understand that this is a job of labor and love, and that being a citizen scientist was clearly a title that was earned. Slowly but surely we felt that we were earning that title.

At one point in the trip, we came to a profound realization: this is the life of a scientist. Long after we return to our office buildings and studio apartments, these scientists will continue on to the next week. And then the week after that. And throughout the years and years, they will be here, at Acadia National Park, in the forest or on the coast, researching and collecting data and studying samples and fighting climate change. We began to understand that scientists, like firefighters and astronauts and soldiers, were true American heroes.

We had a conversation amongst ourselves one night about how these men and women are dedicating their lives to this hard, gritty work and sacrificing so much all in the effort of obtaining answers to nature’s greatest questions. We wondered why someone would do this for their entire life (as our backs ached from the day’s work) and, after a moment of silence amongst the group, one of our team members said in the simplest of ways, “Someone has to.” We all silently nodded to ourselves, and at that moment we understood the significance of why we were there.

To learn more about the research being conducted, visit our project webpage, Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park.

An Earthwatch Meet-Cute For The (Bronze) Ages

By Karen and Michael Crisafulli, Earthwatch Volunteers

In 1993, a team of Earthwatch volunteers assembled in Spain to participate on a Bronze Age archaeological dig as part of an expedition excavating an ancient Iberian village. And while digging side-by-side, two citizen scientists uncovered more than artifacts. They uncovered love. They each share their stories of how they met.

Karen during what would prove to be the serendipitous 1993 Earthwatch expedition Ancient Iberian Village.

Karen during what would prove to be the serendipitous 1993 Earthwatch expedition Ancient Iberian Village.

Karen: “This is the whole story in a nutshell: Michael came home and said, ‘Ma, look what I dug up!’”

So begins the toast my brother-in-law, Greg, made at our wedding, August 19, 1995.

Two years before, I met Michael on my first Earthwatch project, and though I had lived in Australia, traveled to Europe and Africa, the project in Spain was to be different in two important ways: one, I would be participating in my first dig; and two, I was about to turn a corner in my life…

A more unromantic meeting place would be hard to find – the bus station in Zaragoza. But Michael seemed to notice me right away and managed to sit with me on the one-hour long bus ride to Borja. Our final destination was a youth hostel, The Albergue, in the village of Santuario de la Misericordia near the Bronze Age dig site. During the two-week expedition, we found we had a lot in common as we worked together at the excavation, talked over drinks in the soft summer night air at the village outdoor café, and made plans to meet once we were back in the U.S. Parting after the expedition was hard, but what began in Spain extended into a year of weekend commutes from Binghamton, NY, to Farmington, CT, Michael moving in with me, and our eventual marriage.

Earthwatch brought us together, and it, along with Michael, has a special place in my heart.

Michael during that same 1993 expedition.

Michael during that same 1993 expedition.

Michael: I arrived in Spain early for my third Earthwatch project, Ancient Iberian Village, a Bronze Age archaeology dig, and spent nearly a week traveling around the country by train. By the time I reached the bus station in Zaragoza for the last leg of my travel to the team rendezvous, I was well acclimated to the hot summer weather and Spanish culture. Here, I met several of the other volunteers, recognizable by their Earthwatch pins or emblems. Karen was one of these folk and I took to her at once. We sat together on the hour bus ride to the small town of Borja, and spent much of the next two weeks together as well. I kept a journal of the entire trip and I find my thoughts about Karen filling page after page after our meeting, nearly squeezing out my notes on the project and its related cultural experiences.

Our days were ordered this way: We had a minimal breakfast in The Albergue, or youth hostel where we stayed, in the tiny village of Santuario de la Misericordia. Since the team was large, we were driven in separate groups to the excavation site of Majaladares, the first group walking the last part of the trek so the car could return for the second. We worked through the morning, stopping for a sandwich break, and then reversed the order for the trip back to The Albergue, the first group being driven from the site, the second walking part of the trip. Karen and I were assigned to the same excavation crew, working near the top of the hill that afforded a beautiful view of the Ebro River valley, so we spent lots of time together, both working, riding, and walking. As we got to know each other I found my initial positive reaction continuously reinforced. One day, Karen was not feeling well and stayed back at the Albergue. I very much missed her that morning, but took advantage of my walk from the site to pick some wild flowers – “three varieties, three colors,” my journal says – and had her roommate deliver them.


We arrived at The Albergue near noon when the summer heat was peaking, and usually enjoyed a siesta before what was always a fabulous main meal prepared by the hostel staff. The afternoons were spent in the shaded yard of The Albergue cleaning, sorting, and marking finds. For this work we were rewarded with a second fabulous meal at 8 o’clock. Shortly into the first week, a small team of hearty volunteers was organized to return to the site in the afternoons. Karen and I volunteered for this group. The first week of the project, the weather was sunny and hot until the afternoon it rained. “Rain” is insufficient to describe the wind and downpour that hit the hearty team that afternoon. We ran for the cave where we stored our tools. We were soaked literally to the skin while we waited out the storm. We found the trenches filled with water when we emerged and the weather from then on was strangely cool, rather like Scotland.

I lived in Connecticut at that time and Karen four hours away in upstate New York, but the distance didn’t seem prohibitive and we made plans to get together. I had another week in Mallorca scheduled after the Majaladares team finished its work, but I promised Karen I’d call the moment I returned home. Weather on my return flight gave our relationship its first test. My plane couldn’t land at JFK and was diverted to Hartford, Connecticut. This was, in fact, my final destination, but of course I couldn’t disembark. I missed my connecting flight and my call was late, even though I made it at the airport. But we passed the test and it was great to hear each other’s voices again.

That was 1993. Karen and I were married in 1995. We’ve participated in a new Earthwatch project each year since then. It’s always fun to see the reaction when we tell people how we met on an Earthwatch project Spain.

During their 2015 Earthwatch trip to Spain, Karen and Michael found an infinity mirror while visiting a museum on one of the project's excursion days.

During their 2015 Earthwatch trip to Spain, Karen and Michael found an infinity mirror while visiting a museum on one of the project’s excursion days.

Earthwatch – The Beginning of Everything

By Taylor Rhoades, Earthwatch Volunteer

At 16, Taylor Rhoades traveled to Trinidad and South Africa with Earthwatch to conduct hands-on research alongside scientists – an experience that would set her on the path to her dream job at the Houston Zoo.

Taylor during a tour of the Dallas Zoo when she was working for the National Geographic Photo Ark.

Taylor Rhoades

At 26, it may seem silly to sit back and think about where life has taken you – but when you’ve just landed your dream job, you start to think about all the experiences that have shaped you, and how all of those years of hard work have led up to this moment. Looking back almost a decade, I can say without a doubt that my experiences with Earthwatch were key in defining both my personal and professional identities as a conservationist.

During my junior year of high school, I was aggressively pursuing a future in veterinary medicine, and knew that my ultimate goal would be to work with animals in the field, and then eventually find my way into a zoo setting as I neared retirement age. Believe me when I say 16-year-old me had it ALL figured out – but my parents, while unwavering in their support, weren’t quite sure I had thought through what life in the field would mean. They encouraged me to find a project I could go work on that would allow me to gain field experience, and that is exactly what I did!

Earthwatch was the only organization that I found that would allow someone my age to actually go out and do hands-on work in the field, working directly with wildlife and conservationists.

So, the summer before my senior year of high school, I spent two weeks in Trinidad working with leatherback sea turtles, followed by two weeks in South Africa studying brown hyenas. The trips I went on gave me a taste for field work, and I fell in love with every aspect of it – so much so that I jokingly called my parents from Trinidad and told them not to be surprised if I lost my passport. I came home energized and beyond ready to graduate so I could start the next chapter of my life.

Fast forward to college – I ended up at Texas A&M University where I started out as a pre-vet student, but ultimately switched into anthropology after meeting a professor who does cultural studies in Trinidad. We bonded over our research in a country that we both loved, and through our discussions, I realized just how much of an impact my time in the field had had on me. I didn’t just want to save wildlife, I wanted to know all about the people who lived alongside these animals. My professor mentored me for the next several years, and the more immersed I became in cultural studies, the more I understood that conservation wasn’t just about the animals – it was about people too.

After graduating with my BA in Anthropology, I went on to do my MSc in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes in the UK. My dissertation, entitled “A Texas Perspective: is there a preference for the conservation of endemic versus foreign species through viewing wildlife documentaries?” explored how factors such as generation and gender impact individuals, and in turn influence species preference and willingness to contribute to conservation initiatives. By this time, I knew that I wanted to work directly with people and better understand how to not just inspire the public to care, but to get them to take action to save wildlife.

After graduating from the MSc program in 2016, I completed two internships – one at the Houston Zoo with their conservation department, and one with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, founder of the Photo Ark. As of October 2017, I have started full-time at the Houston Zoo as the Conservation Action Analyst and I couldn’t be happier! Every day I get to offer support to our staff of over 450 conservationists and our project partners all around the world that are working tirelessly to save wildlife. Not only that, but I get to work with people in my hometown and watch them become advocates for wildlife within their own communities! I also get to join my co-workers out in the field on beach clean-ups, sea turtle surveys, and annual monarch butterfly tagging excursions, so field work is still very much a part of my life.

For years when I told people what I was studying, I would often be met with a giggle followed by a discouraging “And how will you make a living doing that?” Now, one of my favorite questions to answer is “how in the world did you get a such a cool job?” The answer? It all started with an organization called Earthwatch.

To learn more about Earthwatch teen expeditions, visit our website.

Conducting “Real Science” Alongside Real Scientists at Acadia National Park

20160716_102423 (1)

By Kyle Ang, Earthwatch Ignite Fellow 2016

After scouring the web for opportunities to conduct hands-on research, Kyle Ang received a fateful email that would send him from his home in Los Angeles to Acadia National Park in Maine. Kyle shares his experience as participating in the Ignite Student Fellowship Program, and how this experience inspired him to pursue a STEM major at the University of Rochester.

Kyle Ang

Kyle Ang

I wanted to do real science.

I was in my junior year of high school, and I knew I wanted to do something hands-on. I wanted to contribute to expanding humanity’s library of knowledge and learn more about what it truly meant to be a scientist.

After weeks of searching for opportunities, nearly all research programs popped up with prices of $2,000 and upwards. There was no way I could afford them, so I continued looking for others. I could hardly count how many websites I visited and signed up for to get updates.

Then, two months later, I received an email that said, “Are you a high school sophomore or junior in the LA area? Spend two weeks next summer participating on a fully funded, scientific research expedition alongside scientists and other students in a natural landscape.”

It was perfect. I applied and was accepted into Earthwatch’s Ignite program for Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park.

2016 Earthwatch Ignite FellowsForward to July 11, 2016, I set off on a six-hour flight from LA to Maine with eight other high school students from Los Angeles County. It was exciting to be on my own for the first time traveling to a new place, with new people. We had a six-hour layover at the Boston Logan International Airport before we actually arrived in Maine. During the wait, my team and I bonded over playing cards, telling jokes, and trying to keep each other awake.

We stayed at the research and education campus of Schoodic Institute where we spent two weeks hopping from different field sites and tide pools to study the effects of ocean acidification on intertidal communities.

I learned about how carbon dioxide, the pumping of fossil fuels, and burning of chemicals into our atmosphere has created a disruption between interactions among the organisms in our oceans. We discussed the urgent issue of lowering pH levels and how our oceans’ rising acidity is dissolving the shells of organisms that contribute to a large part of Acadia’s natural resources and marine ecosystems.

It struck me then that we, as inhabitants of our planet, must act urgently in every way possible to take care of our environment and preserve its natural beauty for future generations to come.

When we headed out into the field, in our neon yellow vests, we collected crabs while crawling through cobble, ate freshly salted seaweed straight from the rocks, examined algae and even watched barnacles open up their mouths to feast on sea plankton. We mixed epoxy glue for our settlement plates and discovered a new side to science as we watched researchers drill holes into volcanic rock.

The best part for me was being able to experience so many new things. I had never been to the east coast or a tide pool. I hadn’t eaten lobster, scones, whoopie pies, s’mores, or had a campfire. I had never been away from my house for so long, bunked/slept over with friends, watched the sunrise while eating my breakfast on top of rocks facing the ocean, nor had I picked fresh blueberries off of bushes before.

I’d never gone on a mystery adventure drive at 10 p.m. under the full moon to search a wobbling boat dock for a shoal of squid, or gone moth hunting, or had multiple caterpillars waddling up and down my arm. (My teammates and I named one Francesca.) I hadn’t gone on a hike up Alder trail in 90-degree weather (probably my most challenging hike to date), and I surely never had as many bug bites as I got during this expedition. (I ended up with 44. I guess it was the mosquitoes’ way of welcoming me to Maine!) And to add to all of that, I can even say now that I’ve met the inspiring explorer, Sylvia Earle.

I time-lapsed fast moving clouds, painfully slow snails, and fascinatingly bizarre barnacles feeding on sea-plankton. I learned how to use a compass and search for our sites using a handheld GPS. (We had cool site names like Mordor, Hogwarts, Tabletop, and Blueberry Hill.) I’ve always viewed data-entry as tedious, but with this expedition, I realized it was actually satisfying. I learned how to make settlement plates to place at our sites. I learned to avoid slippery sea lettuce — or “the green slime of death,” as John Cigliano, our lead scientist, called it.

When I got home, I wanted to tell everyone that I watched a scientist drill holes into volcanic rock. I wanted to let them know, “Scientists aren’t just nerds in lab coats!” Some of them stared at me with amusement as I gushed on about barnacles opening up to eat sea plankton, and about how crabs leave behind dead skin in the shape of cool translucent shells. I wanted to tell them how amazing it was to walk through dirt paths with nothing else but green trees and fresh air surrounding you. I opened up the topic of how worrying it is for people to still doubt climate change.

Most of all, I was excited to tell them I contributed to science. I did field work, lab experiments, and worked alongside real scientists. I wanted to tell them all about how wonderful it felt to be a part of something that would actually impact the welfare of our planet.

I realized that while science exists to study and answer questions still unanswered, sometimes, science does not work the way we expect it to. It takes time, error, failure, and countless tries. And sometimes, while it does not answer our questions, it can present new ones that continue to fuel humanity’s insatiable curiosity to seek answers.

Now, as a freshman exploring the arts, music, and sciences at the University of Rochester, I look back on my Earthwatch expedition with pride and gratitude knowing that it was an experience I will continue to share with others and remember for many years to come.

Learn more about this program by visiting the Earthwatch Ignite Fellowship website.