Justin Cummings and Erika Zavaleta in front of the ocean

Grant Year

2021, 2020, 2018

Project Leader/s

Dr. Erika Zavaleta, Dr. 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, Dr. Erika Zavaleta and Dr. Justin Cummings* at 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 includes 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” recalls Professor Zavaleta. “I am excited to help connect others to that passion.”

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, and to create an environment in which they feel safe, welcome, and included. One of the program’s notable achievements is the Preventing Harassment and Assault in the Field workshop, a high-demand program on preventing harassment and improving inclusion in field courses.

Zavaleta notes that field courses and experiences too often leave students unsure 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.”

In 2020, the Thoreau Foundation awarded the program an additional round of funding to institutionalize and scale the Preventing Harassment and Assault in the Field workshop across the UC system and beyond by training thirty new leaders from four continents to bring the workshop to many new countries and institutions beyond UCSC. This additional funding also expands the highly successful field conservation internship program by helping students continue their 2020 summer internships into the academic year in 2020-21 and offering 12 summer placements in 2021.

In 2021, the program received additional funding to expand and renew its successes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on their efforts to connect more potential and early-stage STEM students with role models, and with research as an entry point into conservation, Zavaleta and her colleagues plan to deliver a new, special seminar series across the UCSC campus, Latinx Scientists Advancing Ecology and Evolution. The series will highlight the contributions of prominent Latinx scientists within the field and provide a space for undergraduate students from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds to engage with the invited speakers in dialogue about science, navigating professional careers in the field, and shared identity. To improve inclusion and equity in field science both at UCSC and throughout the environmental field, they will continue to scale up delivery of their workshop on avoiding and preventing sexual harassment in the field, Building a Better Fieldwork Future, which has now trained 1,000 participants and counting.

“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.”

*In 2020, Dr. Cummings stepped away from the program to begin serving as Mayor of the City of Santa Cruz.

More Information