A Fellowship Ignites Passion For Environmental Protection

ignite-fernando-garciaBy Fernando Garcia, 2014 Ignite Fellow

In 2014, Fernando Garcia decided to take a chance on what would be a life changing opportunity. He applied for a two-week science fellowship to work alongside scientists in Northern Maine on the Earthwatch expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park. Funded by The Durfee Foundation, the Ignite LA Student Science Awards aim to stimulate curiosity and interest in science and technology through hands-on research. Fernando found a renewed sense of passion and awareness for protecting our natural environment.


miller-rushing-credit-mike-mao-7-copyThree years have passed since I travelled to Maine for my Earthwatch Ignite experience, and I could not be any more thankful for those two weeks. During my junior year of high school, I was informed at the last moment of this opportunity by my counselor and decided to apply since it seemed like something I’d enjoy. I was able to receive two recommendations from my teachers and finish my application in time before the deadline, hoping for the best. When I got an email saying that I was chosen to participate, I was both excited and nervous.

I was excited at the opportunity to do research with a scientist in Maine, but nerves and worries were present since I had never before travelled out of state without my parents. Fortunately, the worry did not last long. Before we left for Maine, the Fellows all had the opportunity to meet each other, which made me much more relaxed as I got to know my team members and learned that they were not only smart, but friendly as well. My worry had changed into palpable excitement!

Once in Maine at the project site, Acadia National Park, I was amazed by the natural beauty of the setting surrounding us. We were right next to the coast and I could often hear the waves hit against the rocky shore. The days were enjoyably spent. In addition to conducting research, we would often go hiking down the mountains, and once we even travelled to Cadillac Mountain – the first place in the United States to receive sunlight each day. The research we conducted in Maine was both interesting and transformative. Although the results will take some years to be published, I think we all felt that we were making a difference.

In urban cities like Los Angeles, surrounded by concrete walls, it is often so easy to ignore the damage we are inadvertently causing to the environment.

The Earthwatch Ignite Program allowed me to see another world beyond Los Angeles and instilled in me an interest in protecting our natural environment. Not only was I able to create a bond with my other Earthwatch Ignite Fellows, but I also learned that I should take risks in my own life. Even though to others travelling alone might be common, for me that was far from the truth, and this experience made me much more conscious of my abilities.

Because of this experience, I applied to many colleges realizing that my experience in Maine would make me stand out. If I had the opportunity to go back and apply to the Ignite Fellowship again, I definitely would because this experience was one of the highlights of my high school career. I will never forget the mornings where I woke up literally in the middle of a national park and saw all that our planet has to offer. The generosity that organizations such as the Durfee Foundation provide to high school students is invaluable in giving individuals the ability to soar. The Earthwatch Ignite Program nurtures a love of STEM for so many of its past participants, including me, and I am proud to call myself an alumnus.


To learn more about the Ignite LA Student Science Awards, visit our website.

Plastic, Sea Beans, and Miles of Ocean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Dianna Bell

Never would I have imagined going to the Cayman Islands twice in one year. But when an opportunity presented itself to join an Earthwatch expedition in Little Cayman – I jumped at the chance to return to a place where I had vacationed just months ago. But this time, I would be experiencing something very different: a scientific lab of discovery on the expedition Helping Endangered Corals in the Cayman Islands.

As I took the final leg of my journey on a 10-seater plane, the pilot (in the role of flight attendant) turned around to tell us to buckle up. I was surprised to find myself feeling a bit nervous. Flying over the varying hues of blue, I didn’t know what to expect from my first Earthwatch expedition. I didn’t know who I would meet. I didn’t know if I had the skills required to partake in the scientific field work.

As we de-boarded the plane on the tiny 10-mile island of Little Cayman, and I was greeted by Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) staff, I realized that although I still didn’t know what to expect, it would undoubtedly be a special experience. In the days that followed, I got to know my teammates – a former oceanographer, a Shell engineer, a Department of Energy employee, and one of my coworkers from Earthwatch. I snorkeled more than I ever have before, I saw two nurse sharks, and I learned about many different species of coral and why they’re important. I learned about the importance of sea sponges and urchins, and why invasive species such as the lionfish and green iguana can wreak havoc on tiny island ecosystems.

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And most importantly, I learned that I can make a difference, even if on a small scale.

Researchers around the world need helping hands to get their work accomplished. Here on Little Cayman, there are many coral reefs to survey, and left to one person, the work will take much too long to accomplish.

As we’ve seen for some time, our planet is on the brink of some serious climate-related changes. Having additional hands in the field helping to collect data can speed the process of scientific discovery and conservation along significantly. Here in Little Cayman, Earthwatch volunteers help to survey large areas of coral to assess the health of the reefs. This in turns feeds into larger datasets that can show trends in the marine ecosystem.

Mangroves on Little Cayman.

Mangroves on Little Cayman.

So what can we do to steer the ship away from the climate change iceberg?

Sign up for an Earthwatch expedition. Go into the field and support scientists as they study the effects climate change is having on plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world. Or maybe look to your own community to lend a hand. Start with leading a trash cleanup day.

One of the most memorable moments from the trip was helping clean the beach in front of a local restaurant here on Little Cayman. The five of us on the team collected 10 bags of trash, waste that’s coming to the island from all over the world.

Trash that has washed ashore Little Cayman.

Trash that has washed ashore Little Cayman.

Little Cayman is home to 150 to 200 people, depending on the time of year. Yet every day, bags and bags of garbage wash ashore.

Seeing the many discarded items on the beach today was a revelation for me. Despite my own eco-friendly nature, I have a carbon footprint, and this has widespread effects – effects I had previously never seen laid before me so clearly.

As I picked up the bottle caps, toothbrushes, shoes, contact lens cases, medicine vials, and various forms of plastic, I was reminded of a little factoid CCMI’s Scientific Educational Outreach and Dive Instructor Katie told us on our very first day. We had been gearing up to snorkel, and she bent down and picked up a smooth brown shiny rock-like object. She brought it over to us and informed us that it was a sea bean: the seed of a fruit that drifted out into the ocean, sometimes carried for hundreds of miles. She told us the one in her hand most likely came to the island from Central America.

While collecting trash from the shore, I uncovered some of these sea beans. Just like the waters carried the seeds of tropical trees to new lands, so did it bring the discarded objects of humans from miles and miles away.

Our actions matter. Whether we intend to or not, we are making a difference. What I was reminded of during my time in Little Cayman was that I have the power to choose whether my actions will help or hurt. We all do.

The Anthropocene and You: How Earthwatch citizen scientists can support environmental stewardship

By Dr. Steve Mamet

Drs. Steve Mamet and LeeAnn Fishback are the lead scientists on the Earthwatch expeditions Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge and Climate Change in the Mackenzie Mountains. In celebration of International Day of Climate Action, Steve shares some of the many ways Earthwatch citizen scientists can give back and help to protect our environment – both during and after the expeditions.

steve-mamet_profileHuman activity is now the main cause of most environmental change. These changes have been so profound that scientists suggest we have entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, as we can now observe the global presence of humans in the geologic record. The Anthropocene epoch is a glaring reminder of how we have changed the environment.

The good news is that we as a global community have the means to change the environment for the better.

Though you might feel like your lifestyle is insignificant compared to things like oil extraction or vehicle emissions, the choices we make in our day-to-day life — how we get around, what we eat, how we live — play a major role in slowing climate change. And we as a global community can make a tremendous impact on the environment. One example is the Montreal Protocol in the late 1980s—which started with the scientific discovery of substances that deplete the ozone layer and the “ozone hole” above Antarctica, and culminated with a widespread change in policy to reduce ozone-depleting halogenated hydrocarbons. And this action took place before widespread scientific consensus was established, highlighting the importance and effectiveness of international action on environmental issues.

We’ve changed climate and the environment in the past and it’s inevitable we’ll change it in the future. In contrast to our ancestors who cultivated widespread deforestation, pollution, and climatic change, with little knowledge of how those actions would influence future generations, we now know we have more choices than ever before.

A more sustainable global community starts with informed choices by individuals like you and comfort in the knowledge that we as a global community can make a difference.

As part of our Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge and Climate Change in the Mackenzie Mountains Earthwatch expeditions, Earthwatch citizen scientists travel to northern research sites in the Northwest Territories and northern Manitoba in Canada to help scientists collect a great breadth and depth of data and maintain long-term environmental monitoring.

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But what can citizen scientists do to respond to climate change once they’re back from the field? On your expeditions, you’ve already taken leaps and bounds during your expedition time on the first crucial step: getting informed. But here are a few other tips to help you along the way (see http://www.davidsuzuki.org/ for more information).

  1. Get informed. A good place to start following the latest news about climate change is through realclimate.org: a site on climate science by climate scientists including Michael Mann, Ray Bradley, and Gavin Schmidt.
  2. Get involved. Contact your political representatives and tell them you want immediate action on climate change. Remind them that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will also build healthier communities, spur economic innovation, and create new jobs. Look to join sustainable living organizations in your area (you can start here: http://www.thegreenspotlight.com/). And when you’re at the polls, vote for politicians who support effective climate policies.
  3. Increase your energy efficiency. You already switch off lights — what’s next? Change light bulbs to compact fluorescents or LEDs. Unplug electronics when not in use. Wash clothes in cold or warm (not hot) water. Dryers are energy intensive, so hang dry when you can. Install a programmable thermostat. Look for the Energy Star® label (https://www.energystar.gov/) when buying new appliances. Home energy audits are cheaper than you think; book one today to find even more ways to save energy.
  4. Choose renewable power. Ask your utility companies and urge your elected representatives to switch to clean, renewable power, such as from wind farms. Consider adding solar panels to reduce your reliance on the energy grid.
  5. Eat wisely, including organic and locally grown foods. Avoid processed items that require a lot of energy to produce. Grow some of your own food. Eat low on the food chain — at least one meat-free meal a day — since 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy production. Become more familiar with your food and what it means to be able to eat pretty much anything. A great place to start is Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.
  6. Reuse, reduce, recycle. It sounds like old maxim, but one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to buy less, reduce what you throw away, reuse what you can, and recycle the rest. Garbage buried in landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Keep waste out of landfills by composting kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, and recycling paper, plastic, metal, and glass. Let store managers and manufacturers know you want products with minimal or recyclable packaging.
  7. Let broad-scale polluters pay. Carbon taxes make polluting activities more expensive and green solutions more affordable, allowing energy-efficient businesses and households to save money. They are one of the most effective ways to reduce a nation’s climate impact. Carbon taxes are often revenue-neutral, meaning higher taxes on carbon supplement lowering other taxes you pay. If your state or province doesn’t have a carbon tax, ask your elected representative to implement one.
  8. Fly less. Air travel leaves behind a huge carbon footprint. Before you book your next airline ticket, consider greener options such as buses or trains, or try vacationing closer to home. You can also stay in touch with people by videoconferencing, which saves time as well as travel and accommodation costs.
  9. Green your commute through public or active transport. Transportation causes about 25 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, so walk, cycle, or take transit whenever you can. You’ll save money and get into better shape! If you can’t go car-free, try carpooling or car sharing, and use the smallest, most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.

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A Week Spent Restoring Sierra Nevada’s Meadows

Anna Woodroof in the meadows of Sierra Nevada.

Anna Woodroof

By Anna Woodroof, Earthwatch Program Delivery Assistant

The Sierra Nevada Mountains supply two-thirds of California’s water supply. Meadows in these mountains capture rain and snow, making water available throughout the year. Earthwatch Program Delivery Assistant Anna Woodroof spent time restoring and monitoring this ecosystem in order to better understand potential threats to water supply and biodiversity due to climate change on the expedition Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.


As an East Coaster, I find the landscapes of the West amazing, unlike anything we have at home. The cliffs and valleys seem to invoke a Disney-like magic like the backdrop of a movie set. I recently joined the Earthwatch expedition Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I worked in meadows at the elevation of some of the highest mountains on the East Coast, surrounded by even higher peaks. The expedition was a combination of challenging physical work, a huge sense of accomplishment, and periods of serenity where I was able to enjoy the vast landscape and reflect on all that I was seeing. I loved learning about the importance of the meadows for the community and for the greater California state.

Looking out across the Sierra to the Sierra ButtesReno, Nevada wasn’t the first place I would think to go for quick access to some of the most beautiful landscapes the United States has to offer. But my recent participation on this week-long Earthwatch expedition, in addition to two one-day programs in the Sierra Nevada meadows (which I describe below), changed that perception. Both projects included beautiful sunny weather and amazing vistas of mountains, massive trees, and golden valleys.

For the week-long expedition, my team participated in the scientific studies of meadows in the Yuba watershed. We worked alongside lead scientist Rachel Hutchinson, as well as other researchers from the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), to understand how human activities have altered the meadows on the Western-side of the Sierra Nevada and how these changes will impact their response to a changing climate.

Over the course of one week, we installed three groundwater-monitoring wells, collected data on stream water level flows, and identified meadow plant species by collecting several biomass samples. The research took place between long fascinating hikes through Tahoe National Forest with a passionate botanist and enthusiastic hydrologist ready to answer any questions we had. SYRCL is working to create a budget of the carbon released and sequestered in the particular meadows with the hopes of influencing policy with the findings.

The other projects I took part in were one-day events with researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno. This project series – called Sierra to Sea – also studies meadows, but on the Eastern-side of the Sierra Nevada, and strives to recruit locals whose communities will be directly impacted by the study to participate. The volunteers consisted of high school students, college undergraduates and the other community members who spent a Saturday or Sunday with the researchers in the field. We collected biomass samples, measured trees and sagebrush, and learned about the difference between wet and dry meadows when it comes to carbon sequestration. Even though the group volunteered together for one day, I got to know a lot about the people of the region through the local community members who participated.

Learning about the local water source and the science behind carbon sequestration in meadows made me think more about my own community and the processes taking place there. The researchers and community members participating rely on the water and the biodiversity of the meadows and have a personal perspective surrounding the issues. I think both groups learned a great deal from this experience and will take their newfound knowledge back to their everyday lives.

Student Ignites Path To Career In Science Through Fellowship Program

By Kiara Reed, 2014 Ignite Fellow

In 2014, Kiara Reed left her home in Los Angeles and traveled across the country to a remote corner of Maine to embark on a two-week science fellowship on the expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park. Funded by The Durfee Foundation, the Ignite LA Student Science Awards aim to stimulate curiosity and interest in science and technology through hands-on research. Kiara immersed herself in the beauty of Acadia National Park and came away from the experience transformed and inspired to pursue a career in science. 


20160712_194408Before embarking on this program, I had never set foot on a national park reserve, let alone Acadia National Park – a 47,000-acre, pine tree-filled paradise off the coast of Maine. As a Los Angeles city dweller, I was in awe at the miles and miles of vast forestry and picturesque views from our peninsula to the surrounding islands. Along with enjoying the scenes, I was given explanations about the ecology of the region. Our chief scientist, Dr. John Cigliano, taught us about the overfishing of cod in the western Atlantic Basin and ocean acidification, our research topic.

As a team, my group and I tracked the biodiversity of organisms in tide pools, many of which have calcium carbonate shells, rendering them vulnerable to changes in pH levels in the water. We collected common periwinkle snails from the tide pool for further observation. Examining snail behavior and shell weights in the lab made me feel like a real field researcher, giving me insights otherwise unobtainable at my inner-city high school. I left the expedition with a newfound appreciation for nature and a more realistic view about what research is all about.

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

When the college exploration season came around, the impacts of this expedition became clear. My college counselor mandated that everyone apply to an out of state school. Having cherished my time in Maine, I decided to add Colby College to the list. One part of the application consisted of a personal statement. Here, I wrote about my Earthwatch experience and the value of citizen science, proposing that we can reverse human-caused environmental degradation with two things: optimism and collective effort.

I was accepted to the school as well as a six-week science program where I was able to research causes for the decline of eelgrass on Mount Desert Island, study the environmental chemistry of Maine lakes, and even investigate applications of green chemistry. By the end of this program, I found that contributing to an authentic research project made me feel capable and, at the same time, uncertain as each discovery posed more questions.

Earthwatch gave me the confidence and inspiration I needed to pursue a career in the sciences.

If I hadn’t participated in my Earthwatch expedition, I do not think I would have the confidence to attend a private college in Maine – which is on the opposite end of the country from my home state – or have the courage to become a scientist myself. As you may be able to tell, this program was likely a catalyst to my scientific endeavors. It helped me develop realistic expectations for a career in the sciences and took me out of the city to inspire me with the beauty of biology.


Applications are still being accepted for 2017 Ignite Fellowships. To learn more, visit our website.

How Bees And ‘Chili Grenades’ Can Prevent Human-Elephant Conflict

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

Elephants seen during the expedition Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in KenyaA strobe light, a roman candle, and a “chili grenade” (which, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is a condom filled with chili powder, small rocks, and a firecracker) – these “repellents” might be methods to save not only your crops, but an elephant’s life, according to research being conducted throughout Africa and Asia. One such research study is Earthwatch’s new expedition: Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya, led by Dr. Bruce Schulte.

Bruce has spent over 20 years working with elephants, and beginning in 2017, he will launch this new Earthwatch project, in part to help reduce human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Kenya. Elephants have come into conflict with farmers by eating or damaging crops as farms expand and elephant habitat dwindles.

Another important focus of the study will be on land conservation by implementing the latest methods in sustainable agriculture and forestry. Climate change has resulted in extreme weather events, threatening agriculture production in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to find ways around these agriculture impediments by using climate-smart agriculture – a method that reduces pesticide and herbicide use and supports crops that are resistant to climate change while improving soil, land, and water management systems. The soil in this region lacks nutrients and water, and can only sustain agricultural life for a brief period causing farmers to travel deeper into the bush for healthier soil.

An African elephant in Kenya.As farmers shift their agriculture practices into elephant habitat, HEC has increased. Elephants are crucial to the maintenance of their environments by regenerating forests through seed dispersal and trail generation, as well as serving as an important source economically for African tourism. To better protect this species while supporting local farmers and their livelihoods, researchers are testing the effect of repellents on the elephants.

“One of the problems with elephants is that because they are highly intelligent, social, and long-lived animals, they have the ability to problem solve and retain knowledge,” Bruce said. “Through this project, a multifaceted solution will be found.”

Bruce has been experimenting with a number of natural repellents such as strobe lights or natural sound projection ranging from lions roaring to helicopters flying overhead. Although because of their natural intelligence, elephants have learned these repellents have no negative effect on their well-being and begin to ignore them after several interactions. Other repellents used are beehive fences and chili grenades, which remain effective because the elephant will associate being stung or inhaling a foul scent when crossing onto farms.

Aluminum strip fences are another method of repelling elephants from raiding crops.

Aluminum strip fences are another method of repelling elephants from raiding crops.

On average, elephants destroy 10 to 15 percent of a crop yield in one raid, and sometimes as much as 100 percent. By experimenting with repellents along with agricultural practices, Bruce’s project will reduce HEC and work to develop agricultural models alongside local and national officials to broaden conservation practices that will benefit this terrain. If successful, this will ensure stable agriculture and allow humans and elephants to live harmoniously.

“The goal is to make this bigger than any one individual, or group,” Bruce said. “The idea is to establish enough connections with the local people – all the way up to the Kenyan government – to get these practices to become sustainable.”

The Story of How a Painter and Wolf Expert Became Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist: Dr. Cristina Eisenberg

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

Beginning at a young age, Dr. Cristina Eisenberg has had a passion for science, describing herself as the nerdy kid in second grade who spent her time in the library reading every book on wildlife, anthropology, archeology, and paleontology that she could get her hands on.

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

“I was fascinated by it,” Cristina said. “But like many people, I got sidetracked away from science.”

Today, Cristina is Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist – overseeing a portfolio of more than 50 research studies around the world, including her own, which focuses on the relationship between fire and wolves in the Canadian Rockies. Her research is playing a crucial role in restoring the once extensive grasslands of Waterton Lakes National Park back to their pre Euro-American settings.

In 1999, with a bachelor’s degree in painting, Cristina relocated to northwest Montana along the continental divide. A naturalist and stay-at-home mom at the time, she learned to track animals that passed through her land – a system developed to ensure her children’s safety. On a cool and misty July morning, as she was working outside in her garden, Cristina watched as a deer burst from the woods into the meadow in front of her home with two wolves in pursuit.

“It ran towards us and came within about 20 feet of us and right behind it was a pair of wolves, a grey one and a black one,” Cristina said. “Later I learned that it was an alpha male and female pair. They had started a pack.”

Cristina determined these wolves were traveling down from Canada and recolonizing the landscape, which was located just 400 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

This rare sighting sparked her interests and she began tracking wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a volunteer basis. She was a citizen scientist in action. In 2003, she returned to school and obtained her master’s in conservation biology and environmental writing from Prescott University. Cristina’s first book, The Wolf’s Tooth, was based on her master’s thesis. She then went on to pursue two doctorates in wildlife and forestry at Oregon State University.

While completing her doctorate, Cristina hired interns with field experience to support her research, several of whom had volunteered on Earthwatch expeditions. While she had heard of Earthwatch in the past, this was her first real exposure to the organization.

But her ties to Earthwatch were only just beginning. In 2010, she gave a talk on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she met Earthwatch’s Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman. Three years later, she spoke again at a fundraiser in Seattle about the relationship with her volunteers and their importance in her research, which Stan also attended. He recognized her passion for environmental science and for citizen science, and suggested she write a proposal for an Earthwatch research project. In 2015, Cristina launched her first Earthwatch expedition: Tracking Fire and Wolves through the Canadian Rockies.

“The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know.” – Cristina Eisenberg

During the Westward expansion, large carnivorous predators were wiped out to eliminate human settlement interactions as well as increase the availability of game. These actions resulted in a boom in herbivore populations. At the same time, fire was suppressed in order to protect forest resources and human interests. Funded by Parks Canada, Earthwatch, the Kainai First Nation, and the AGL Foundation, Cristina’s research examines the effects that these conditions have had on the species within Waterton Lakes National Park, a biodiversity hotspot located in Alberta, Canada. With the natural recolonization of wolves and use of large prescribed fires, the area has experienced drastic change.

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

In September of 2014, she was hired as Earthwatch’s Lead Scientist, and more recently assumed the role of Chief Scientist. With more than 10 years of field experience under her belt, Cristina is a scientist who is “attached to the natural world.” She has had some exciting experiences in the field, including a memorable 24-hour period in May pulling transect tape in a blizzard as wolves silently hunted behind her, or watching as an elusive alpha female wolf devoured a fully grown elk. Her work more recently includes working alongside the aboriginal Kainai Tribe, where she is supporting efforts to update their timberland management plan to protect their sacred lands.

While Cristina is now stationed at Earthwatch’s headquarters in Boston, each May she returns to the field with a group of volunteers, continuing the conservation of one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Her research has and will continue to unfold the ecological mysteries of this area, while posing new questions for years to come.