Olive Onyekwelu recording data

Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program

August 13, 2019

Doris Duke Scholars: The Future of Environmental Conservation Leadership

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What do students who use GoPro footage to study invasive fish species, research deer populations with GPS data, and teach high school students about cacti have in common? They are all part of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program.

This summer, eight Cornell students completed environmental conservation research projects and internships as part of D.D.C.S.P, a program created to promote diversity and provide career opportunities in environmental conservation.

Under this program, students spend their first summer conducting independent research projects and their second summer doing paid internships. Of the 26 Cornellians selected by the program in the last 6 years, 15 spent their first summer at the Cornell Biological Field Station at Shackleton Point.

Olive Onyekwelu ’21, one of these 15 students, researched round goby fish, an invasive species that came to Oneida Lake in 2013. She collected data by taking GoPro videos at 100 locations in the lake, and then analyzed and compared it with the data from last summer to understand how the population has grown.

“They cause some issues. They are displacing native fish, eating fish eggs of big game fish which affects anglers … and have reduced competition among predator fish,” Onyekwelu said.

Lars Rudstam, the director of the field station and an advisor in the program, says the program helps students learn how to conduct their own research.

“What I like about the outcome of this internship is that students think about a research program, they get involved in how to solve an interesting problem, analyze it, and write it up — the whole research process,” Rudstam said.

The other main site of research for scholars during their first summer is Fort Drum, New York – a military base as well as a research location. There, Andrew Gordon ’21 and Kayla Shelley ’21 studied white-tailed deer by comparing observations from the roads of the military base to data collected from the GPS collars on the deer’s necks.

According to Martin Feehan, a graduate research assistant at Fort Drum and the graduate student mentor for the program, white-tailed deer population growth has implications for many environmental issues, including the spread of lyme disease carried by ticks found on white-tailed deer.

During the second summer of the program, students find paid internships in government agencies and charity organizations. Dominique Agnew ’21 spent her second summer working on youth outreach and education for Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona. She said her research experience helped her understand the origin of the information that she hopes to someday use in a career in environmental law.

Students also echoed with the program’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, calling for people of diverse backgrounds to join the research and work of conservation.

Gordon recommends that students looking to get involved in conservation “find a mentor you can trust, find a support system that is working towards your best interests.”

“The challenges we face in conservation are massive. If we continue to have people from the exact same backgrounds looking at problems from the same vantage points, it’s very unlikely we will have the change we need,” Feehan said.