From Conservation Council to Columbia: A Scholar’s Journey in Environmental Sciences

Bertha was always interested in nature. The youngest of three girls growing up in the Roseland section of Santa Rosa, she would imagine the sounds of cars rushing by her window on Highway 12 were those of crashing ocean waves. A trip to play in the park required public transportation, and this confined her to the little bit of nature right outside her door. She was drawn to the single, tall tree growing outside her window, and pulling a handful of bark off the tree, she did what any young, internet-savvy kid would do: she Googled it. A Redwood!! Bertha’s inclination toward “field research” emerged before she even grasped the concept, as she made discoveries and indulged her curiosity about the world around her. 
 
During her freshman year of high school, Bertha came across an advertisement for an outdoor education program hosted by Sonoma Land Trust in her school’s monthly newsletter. Despite feeling somewhat apprehensive, she applied to the Conservation Council program. However, she wasn’t selected due to the program’s limited capacity. Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, as the world began to reopen and Bertha entered her junior year, she decided to apply once more. This time, she succeeded! Bertha became part of a group of 20 students who dedicated over 140 hours both online and in the field, deepening their understanding of science within a living laboratory setting. 

Bertha quietly settled into the programming as she tried to follow along with the Zoom workshops, learning how to catalog wildlife from field camera footage the group had set up the week before. Their focus was to monitor the wild turkey population at Laufenburg Ranch Preserve which they concluded to be the Rio Grande Wild Turkey and that there are no native wild turkey species left in California. Bertha shared, “I was surprised to learn that this species was not native and was introduced from a flock in Texas.” The team spent hours counting turkeys captured on camera, while also learning the process of cataloging each entry and subsequently comparing their data to previous years to identify changes or similarities. 
 
“That winter, we had historic atmospheric river events, which meant we saw more plants and ticks for the turkeys to feed on. We also learned how to adapt when the field cameras filled with water from the rains and we lost data sets and had to rely on other methods to complete our research,” Bertha said. 
 
The Conservation Council participated in weekly field trips at local preserves. They hiked the redwoods at Laufenburg Ranch, kayaked at Sears Point Ranch, and conducted field notes with watercolor paintings at Sonoma Mountain Vernal Pools Preserve. The first year was a hybrid program and Bertha shared that “the online workshops were challenging to stay focused; however, our field trips and outings kept me engaged. I enjoyed dissecting wildflowers to learn about them and crafted a bookmark with pressed petals where I named each section of the flower’s anatomy.”  
 
In addition to the hands-on research and nature-based workshops, the program’s curriculum emphasizes essential life skills that Bertha’s high school has not provided. These practical skills include how to apply for college and what to consider when vetting the offers, financial responsibility including healthy spending habits and understanding student loans as well as an overview of the conservation science fields. All of this serves to deepen the students’ comprehension of the opportunities within science and conservation, impressing upon them the need for their skills and talents in the field. 
 
“In my sophomore year, I knew I wanted a career in the environmental field but thought I only had two paths: Environmental Science or Environmental Law”. Now as a senior and near the completion of a second year in the program, Bertha builds upon her science and leadership skills as she co-leads her team’s research project focused on investigating the potential effects of vegetation species on soil chemical properties. Delving deep into the science and visiting the U.C. Davis Horwath Biogeochemistry and Nutrient Lab, has expanded her view of the paths available to her. 

In addition to the hands-on learning and skills building, she shared “The career expo we attended as part of the program this year, provided me with the opportunity to learn about the many other opportunities that I had not been aware of. The Conservation Council opened up opportunities that I didn’t know were available to me.” 

Inspired by this newfound path aligned with her skills and interests, Bertha began taking classes at the Santa Rosa Junior College to reinforce the skills she was acquiring at the Conservation Council. These included courses in climate science, statistics, and marine biology. Bertha’s schedule leaves little time for rest as she packs in high school coursework, weekly Conservation Council workshops and outings, Junior College classes, and participates in youth programs including ¡DALE!, Latino Service Providers, and Youth Commission on Human Rights. She meets her responsibilities and attendance all while relying on our local public busses and trains to get from campus to campus.  

Bertha begins her college career already ahead of the curve, as she adds five associate degrees from the Junior College in Environmental Studies, Natural Sciences, Spanish, Humanities, and Latin American studies in addition to her high school diploma.  
Graduation day in late May marks the beginning of a summer internship with the award-winning non-profit Point Blue Conservation Science, after which Bertha will pack her bags for the Big Apple – New York City. Bertha’s dedication to her studies has earned her a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious Columbia College, including housing. It is there that Bertha will begin the coursework to fulfill an Environmental Chemistry degree, which she hopes to apply to research studies that can address climate-driven catastrophes like coral bleaching. 

From a quiet suburban upbringing to the bustling streets of New York City, Bertha’s journey epitomizes the power of passion, perseverance, and the transformative potential of education. Bertha truly is a Force for Nature!