Palmyra Atoll – version 2 (Biology)

Palmyra Atoll appeared from the clouds as a small green horseshoe on a vast deep blue horizon. Our plane circled the remote atoll, known for its paradisiacal lagoon and pristine coral reefs, before landing and beginning one of my most memorable summer research experiences. As we trekked across the islands, performing vegetation transects, bird surveys, and soil samples, I came to love this small piece of paradise where humans have never lived. It struck me hard, then, when a fellow researcher mentioned, “With even a few feet of sea level rise from climate change and this atoll disappears from the map.”

Climate change will dramatically alter the fabric of ecosystems in years to come, and 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. As climate perturbation intensifies, scientists will face multi-dimensional challenges in understanding the natural world, cooperating with the people inextricably linked to the environment, and communicating their findings to those making the decisions. My background from rural Colorado has given me the passion to study the environment, but it has been my time at [redacted] and my research experiences that has prepared me to do graduate work in conservation biology. I am committed to addressing these future challenges in my graduate research and would like to focus on the intersection between climate change and ecosystem services. The exceptional faculty and opportunities for innovative interdisciplinary work make [redacted]’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology an ideal program for me.

I grew up in rural southwestern Colorado and came to appreciate the vast complexity and beauty of ecosystems as my family camped, hiked, and backpacked across our corner of the Rocky Mountains. My love for the outdoors echoed through all aspects of my high school life, from my love of math and science to learning Spanish from my Cuban grandmother to read Pablo Neruda poetry, from drawing from the styles of nature writers like Henry David Thoreau in my own creative writing novels to composing my own nature-inspired piano pieces to perform.

While my passion for preserving nature, rooted in my youth, drives me to study the environment, my knowledge of the deep interdependencies between humans and the natural world and the intricacies of environmental issues has developed greatly during my last four years at [redacted]. Initially a double major in Human Biology and English, I have taken a wide variety of classes at [redacted] and I feel this wide breadth of education will be critical to approaching future problems. Two courses especially, both field courses in tropical biology, profoundly impacted my understanding of science and my future directions. 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 other course, two weeks in the Amazon Rainforest in a group of twenty American and Brazilian students, highlighted for me the interconnectedness of human welfare and environmental problems. As we traveled by boat up the Rio Negro, we passed endless cattle farms and squalid houses in pastures cleared from the forest. While the class was supposed to focus on the carbon cycle, climate and soils, it soon became clear to all of us that you 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 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. From a summer spent doing forest management with the United States Forest Service, to a summer sampling salamanders in Yellowstone National Park, to the field work on Palmyra Atoll, I have been exposed to a large variety of ecology fieldwork. I have been able to go in-depth in my Human Biology honors thesis with Dr. [redacted] on riparian bird populations, land-use change, and climate change. Above all, I feel that my senior honors thesis has given me the most relevant and helpful experience for graduate research. I repeated a Breeding Bird Census done in 1972 to calculate the change in bird populations over 35 years and intend to investigate changes in land-use and climate over that time period. I hope to publish the findings of my work before I graduate. Throughout each stage, whether in the bird survey methods, climate data, or finding quality aerial photographs, I have had to overcome various setbacks, and the project has made me much more resourceful and creative.

In my graduate work I am most interested in looking at the effects of climate change on ecosystem services. Much current work in quantifying ecosystem services focuses on the impacts of land-use change to ecosystems. Climate change will likely impact many aspects of ecosystem stability, including the services that the ecosystems provide to native people like water purification, native pollination, and forest products. The flexibility, breadth and depth of the faculty at [redacted] make it an ideal place to study this. I hope to balance theoretical work and applied conservation biology, as well as incorporating modeling and economic elements in my work, and such interdisciplinary work fits well with the program at [redacted].

Palmyra Atoll is one of the few places on this planet without people, yet it will still be harmed by climate change. Future conservation efforts will hinge on finding new ways like ecosystem services to finance the continuing integrity of ecosystems and must involve human concerns on all scales. 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. It is my goal 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 1.

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