WWU senior Biology major Bre Mills has completed a prestigious two-summer Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program fellowship at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
She said she hopes more Western students follow her lead and go through the process to apply, as her two summers in the field with the program gave her invaluable research experience and helped point her in new directions after she graduates.
“It was just an amazing experience,” said Mills. “Over the course of the fellowship, I worked with scientists on field research across California, did presentations on my work, got a much deeper understanding of the scientific process – and it was even a paid fellowship as well.”
The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) is just one part of the larger Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that provides funding on everything from the performing arts to childhood education, medical research and in this case, environmental conservation. Five universities host DDCSP summer programs across the country: the University of Washington, UC Santa Cruz, University of Florida, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Michigan.
Mills’ faculty advisor, Professor of Biology Dave Hooper, said he saw some information online about the DDCSP and knew it would be a perfect for Mills, if she was interested.
“What an opportunity to get to try out different kinds of research,” he said. “And that’s the thing – you never really know what is going to strike a chord until you try it. And fellowships like these have so many opportunities for networking and establishing career networks as well.”
The goal of DDCSP is to serve students from groups traditionally underrepresented in conservation, across disciplines, who can contribute to diversifying, redefining, and strengthening efforts to protect land, wildlife and water.
During the first year, Mills worked through an eight-week, intensive summer course integrating conservation design, leadership and research experiences while traveling with her cohort of peers and mentors. The first half of this phase of the fellowship took place at UC Santa Cruz, while the second half consisted of field research across the state. Mills said she did everything from study sand crabs on the Big Sur coast to bristlecone pines, the world’s oldest living trees, high in the White Mountains.
During the second summer, the cohort broke down into pairs for placement at regional labs and field offices; Mills spent most of her time at the famed Scripps Institute for Oceanography in La Jolla, where she worked with Stuart Sandin, the director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, on a project called the “100 Island Challenge,” studying 3-D models of coral reefs from islands around the Pacific to better understand the ecological challenges facing these incredibly important habitats.
A professional development retreat after the second summer reunited the scholar cohort and helped prepare them to apply for jobs and graduate school.
“Going into this fellowship, I was honestly unsure about what I wanted to do after graduation, but it has really helped me find what most interests me and better understand what opportunities are out there,” she said.
Mills said after graduating this spring, she plans to spend a year doing a post-baccalaureate research fellowship before going to graduate school – and added that the DDCSP gave her the clarity she needed to better plan her future.
Mills’ advice to her fellow Western students, especially those interested in biology or conservation: go for it, whether it is through the DDCSP or another similar program.
“It is SO worth it. Just put yourself out there -- you will learn so much. My cohort is incredibly close – we’re going to have a reunion somewhere this summer to catch up,” she said.
For more information about the DDCSP, which has a February application deadline, go to http://www.ddcf.org/what-we-fund/environment/goals-and-strategies/strengthening-the-conservation-field/doris-duke-conservation-scholars-program. The DDCSP program through the University of Washington has information at http://uwconservationscholars.org/, and the program at UC Santa Cruz is online at https://conservationscholars.ucsc.edu/.
Images courtesy Bre Mills and UC Santa Cruz.