Palmyra Atoll – version 1 (Biology)

“A few feet of sea level rise from climate change,” a fellow researcher remarked as we stared across the turquoise lagoon of Palmyra Atoll, “and this atoll disappears from the map.” Thinking about the delicate system of vibrant coral reefs, native Pisonia grandis trees, and pelagic seabirds, the profound threat of rapid climate change to the worlds’ ecosystems struck me viscerally. My background from rural Colorado has given me the passion to study the environment, but it has been my time at Stanford and my research experiences in places like Palmyra Atoll that have prepared me to do graduate work in conservation biology. I would like to focus my graduate work on the intersection between climate change and ecosystem services. The depth of faculty and potential for interdisciplinary work make [redacted]’s School of the Environment and Earth Sciences an ideal setting for this research.

Growing up in rural southwestern Colorado helped me to appreciate the vast complexity and beauty of ecosystems as my family camped, hiked, and backpacked across our corner of the Rocky Mountains. My connection with the outdoors echoed through all aspects of my high school life. I learned Spanish from my Cuban grandmother and soon fell in love with Pablo Neruda’s lyrical poetry of the natural world. I incorporated the styles of other nature writers like Henry David Thoreau in writing my own novels and drew from the natural world in composing my own piano and orchestral pieces.

While my passion for nature drives me to study the environment, my appreciation for the deep interdependencies between humans and the natural world and the intricacies of environmental issues has developed greatly at [redacted] University. Two courses especially, both field courses in tropical biology, profoundly impacted my understanding of science and my future directions in ecology research. The first class involved a ten day field research component in Veracruz, Mexico, followed by an entire class of analyzing the data, writing up the findings and presenting our research. This class taught me the rigor and complexity of designing and conducting a study, as well as how to synthesize and communicate my results. The second course, which included two weeks in the Amazon Rainforest, highlighted the interconnectedness of human welfare and environmental problems. While the class was supposed to focus on the carbon cycle, climate and soils, it soon became clear to all of the students that one can never simply focus on the science of the environment. The solution to stemming deforestation in the Amazon will come from a variety of programs, from ecotourism to infrastructure, from research on valuing the ecosystem services to education for native people.

My past research has given me experience in ecology fieldwork and practical tools with which to approach the effects of climate change on ecosystem services. I spent a summer doing GPS work, timber marking, and aspen regeneration surveys with the United States Forest Service that taught me the challenges of forest management. My next summer research experience took me to Yellowstone National Park to sample salamanders and investigate the genetic underpinnings of paedomorphosis. Subsequent field work on Palmyra Atoll last summer exposed me to a large variety of ecology fieldwork – bird surveys, bird tagging, shark tagging, vegetation transects and soil digests.

Finally, my Human Biology honors thesis has provided the experience of designing and conducting publication-quality research. My project focused on riparian bird populations, land-use change, and climate change. I repeated a Breeding Bird Census done in 1972 to calculate the change in bird populations over thirty-five years, and have begun to investigate changes in land-use and climate over that time period. I plan to submit the study to an academic journal before I graduate. I have had to be resourceful and creative in overcoming obstacles throughout the study. For instance, due to the paucity of available quality aerial photos, I devised several alternate methods of measuring land-use change like integrating road-density, Census Bureau data, and county building permits.

Climate change will dramatically alter the fabric of ecosystems in years to come. Much of our ability to preserve biodiversity and elevate human development without compromising the environment depends on our capacity to understand and predict these effects. In my graduate work I would like to examine the effects of climate change on ecosystem services. Much current work in quantifying ecosystem services focuses on the impacts of land-use change on small scales. Arguably, however, climate change has already and will continue to compromise and alter many aspects of ecosystem stability, including the ecosystem services provided to people. What are the effects of climate change on native pollinating insects and what repercussions will that have on agriculture? Will the projected changes in precipitation patterns across the American west damage riparian vegetation and affect water purification for many local communities? Will changes in bird species range effect seed dispersal provided by these birds, limiting plant dispersal and regeneration potential? Because my research interests cover a broad spectrum of conservation biology, my project necessitates a breadth and depth of the faculty such as that found at [redacted]. I hope to balance theoretical work and applied conservation biology, as well as incorporating modeling and economic elements in my work. The [redacted] School of the Environment and Earth Sciences provides opportunities to do such interdisciplinary work. I have contacted Professors [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted], as my interests align with facets of their research.

Understanding the effects of climate on natural systems and the services they provide will be an integral part to preventing future losses of biodiversity and human suffering. Future conservation efforts will hinge on finding new ways like ecosystem services to finance the continuing integrity of ecosystems. Palmyra Atoll is one of the few tropical places on this planet that is still uninhabited by humans, yet it will still be devastated by climate change. I hope to work to ensure that places like Palmyra Atoll are not simply places of the past, committed to their own quiet extinction.


 This author gained admission to three of the top programs in biology in the country.  If you are interested in seeing how authors may write multiple versions of an SOP, please see the sister-essay Palmyra Atoll – version 2.

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