University of California, Santa Cruz
Engaging Undergraduates in Conserving Climate-Vulnerable Biodiversity

As a student myself, I struggled with lecture-based classes and recipe-like research labs. It was out in the field where I discovered my passion for environmental science. I am excited to help connect others to that passion. –Professor Erika Zavaleta

Grant year(s)


Principal investigator(s)

Erika Zavaleta, Justin Cummings

Project description

The field of conservation impacts people from all walks and stations of life, and yet all voices are not equally represented among its practitioners. Believing that conservation could have more public relevance—and greater impact—if a more representative cross-section of the U.S. and the world were involved, Professor Erika Zavaleta and Dr. Justin Cummings of UC Santa Cruz conceived of a program to propel talented, passionate undergraduate students from underrepresented socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds in the conservation field.

The program is built around three core components: professional development workshops, mentored undergraduate internships in wildlife conservation, and participation in a professional scientific meeting. These opportunities, although rooted in academic coursework, extend students’ learning beyond the classroom to better equip them for entry into conservation work after college. “As a student myself, I struggled with lecture-based classes and recipe-like research labs. It was out in the field where I discovered my passion for environmental science” explains Professor Zavaleta. “I am excited to help connect others to that passion.”

Zavaleta notes that field courses and experiences too often leave students unsure of how to translate those experiences into an environmental career. “By working on research projects with partners outside of academia, our students will make a more direct connection between their studies and the day-to-day life of conservation and resource management professionals. We seek to leverage these field research experiences into a broader set of skills that include the professional and personal dimensions of life as a conservation scientist. Our hope is that navigating the next steps professionally will be less of a challenge for our alumni.”

With many socioeconomic, racial, and cultural groups underrepresented in the conservation field, it can be hard for students from these groups to see themselves as future conservation professionals. Part of the program’s objective, therefore, is to help students understand the relevance and efficacy of their unique perspective on conservation issues, even before they graduate college. Over the long term, Zavaleta and Cummings hope these students can inspire transformative thinking about conservation issues by bringing their ideas to high-value projects and effective organizations.

The Thoreau Foundation’s support is allowing UCSC to expand the program in three crucial areas: (1) increasing climate change-specific internship and research opportunities, (2) offering students from underserved backgrounds the opportunity to participate in and present at a scientific conference, and (3) enhancing professional development opportunities that complement research experiences and equip students to have well-rounded and sustainable careers, as well as productive ones.

“I was thrilled to discover the Thoreau Foundation’s focus on hands-on experiences for students who otherwise would not necessarily get them,” recalls Zavaleta. “The Foundation’s interest in both field experiences and the inspiration that comes with them, and rigorous scientific experiences in environmental conservation, were a great fit for our emphasis at UCSC.”

More information

Program Website

Website of CAMINO, a related program at UC Santa Cruz

Professor Zavaleta's Faculty Website