NAU graduate students get funding to become environmental leaders

Tomorrow’s leaders in western land conservation are today’s graduate students at Northern Arizona University.

Rachael Brown and Chris Holcomb, both in the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, were recently selected by the Wyss Scholars Program for the Conservation of the American West.

Both students are pursuing master’s degrees in environmental sciences and policy, and the program identified them as part of a new generation of leaders on western land conservation issues.

The program provides scholarships for master’s degree students who are pursuing careers in land conservation and management in the U.S. Intermountain West. In addition to in-school support, the program provides support after graduation for students who pursue careers in land conservation.

“Both graduates are working in areas that share the complex relationship between science and policy—between what we know scientifically and the decisions that we make as a society,” said Tom Sisk, a professor in environmental sciences, who runs the graduate program. “That is where the action is.”

Holcomb is working on a project focusing on the ecological effects of political boundaries on the forests of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He is investigating the ecological differences in the area that result from forest management policies that differ among federal land management agencies.

“It is extremely encouraging to have been given a vote of confidence by the Wyss Scholars Program,” Holcomb said. “I hope to gain experience in using my time and energy in such a way so as to have the greatest possible impact.”

Brown’s focus is on water management issues. She is analyzing how different groups utilize scientific understanding and present it when developing water management policies. She is focusing on the scientific evidence used to create policy for the upper Verde River, which is steeped in controversy as to whether the river can supply the water people say it can.

“I am honored that the foundation thinks my work is important,” Brown said. “I chose NAU because it offers a program that focuses on bridging the gap between science and policy and that is exactly what I want to do. This is giving me more confidence.”

Recipients are selected based on dedication, need, merit and their “dedication in pursuing a career in land conservation in the West,” said Matthew Hollamby, a program manager for the Wyss Foundation, who visited NAU in late January to award the scholarships. “NAU’s focus on the interaction of environmental policy and science is a critical to developing tomorrow’s conservation leaders.”

Wyss Scholars receive funding to cover a portion of tuition and expenses and a $5,000 summer stipend. Once they graduate, Scholars are eligible for additional reimbursement for college expenses, but only if they are working professionally in western conservation. Total support is roughly half of a student’s tuition and expenses.

The scholarships mark the beginning of NAU’s participation in the Wyss program, which includes only a handful of invited universities.

The Wyss Scholars Program for the Conservation of the American West began in 2006. In addition to NAU, the other schools selected to host the program are the University of Michigan, Yale University and the University of Montana.