A Student’s Summer of Conservation in the Southwest

By Jessica Zhong

October 2020

As August drew to a close, so did one of the most memorable endeavors I have undertaken in my life. I recently spent ten weeks in Santa Fe, New Mexico with the Institute for Applied Ecology's Southwest Office, with the goals of assisting with plant conservation efforts. Personally, I hoped to see as much of the Southwestern landscape as I could.

I came into this position as part of the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program offered by the University of Chicago Conservation Corps. As an undergraduate student studying biology and environmental science, this presented the perfect opportunity for me to experience field work for the first time. Before I knew it, I was flying out to New Mexico for a ten week deep dive into botany, unaware of just how much I would learn and grow.

The usual proceedings of an internship were altered out of necessity; my summer began with a couple of reading-filled weeks in quarantine and a COVID test. Following this, there was a welcome explosion of new coworkers to meet (masked and socially distanced) and tasks to learn.

Learning how to change a flat is essential for field work

Encountering nature during Forest Bound: Santa Fe National Forest

Caravanning with Maria Mullins, the Southwest Seed Partnership Coordinator, I travelled north to Tres Piedras, NM for a Center for Plant Conservation rare plant collection of small-headed goldenweed (Lorandersonia microcephala) and south to Albuquerque’s South Valley to tend to cota (Thelesperma megapotamicum) and white prairie clover (Dalea candida) in a grower training seed production field. Getting my hands dirty transplanting plugs, grappling with bindweed under the blazing sun, and waking up with sore legs—it was all worth it for the gratification of watching the plants blossom and set seed over the course of many visits.

I accompanied Education Coordinator Lia Griesser as an assistant teacher for IAE's outdoor Forest Bound Conservation Education program. We offered two week-long sessions at the Santa Fe National Forest and the Pueblo of Pojoaque. The latter introduced me to one of several pueblo communities in Northern New Mexico and a program that integrated Western botanical and Indigenous Tewa knowledge. My awareness of ecology and nature grew, and I became proficient in identifying common plants and understanding how they fit in the major taxonomic families, and even learned Tewa words and sign language for plants. With the IAE and Bureau of Land Management seed crews, I practiced native seed collection techniques and prepared specimens for IAE’s education herbarium. I dabbled in GIS mapping, wetland restoration, research genetic tissue collection, and even learned how to change a tire and perform first aid.

While visiting the Sandia Mountains, Pecos Wilderness, Salinas and Pojoaque Pueblos, Santa Fe Ski Basin, Galisteo Basin Preserve, and more, I encountered road runners, blue corn waffles, prickly pear jam, and most importantly, a great collection of kind and hardworking people. The IAE staff were welcoming and did their best to make this one of the most productive summers of my life, including those at the Corvallis office a thousand miles away whom I met through telework. Despite the unique challenges presented by the current global climate, I’m extremely grateful for all of the people who helped to make this opportunity possible for me.

To learn more about internships at IAE, visit the Internship Program page on our website.

Conservation intern Jessica Zhong collects Lorandersonia microcephala leaf tissue