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Gaining skills and giving back part of conservation biology class

A communication and journalism major with a minor in conservation biology was among the Blugolds who spent time this spring doing field research and volunteer work at a nature sanctuary in northern Wisconsin. Sarah Doege, who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire this month, worked alongside her classmates and biology faculty at the Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary, a nonprofit environmental education center in Sarona.

In addition to the ecology field work they did as part of their capstone courses, the students also participated in a number of service projects, including cleaning cabins, tending rain and vegetable gardens, organizing educational material and clearing trails.

Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff and Dr. Evan Weiher, both professors of biology, worked alongside the students during the Helping Hands weekend at Hunt Hill.

The experience at Hunt Hill was even more meaningful because the center's executive director, Nikki (Nelson) Janisin, is a UW-Eau Claire graduate.

Sarah Doege shares some highlights from the experience, as well as how it will help her achieve her future goals.

Tell us about your conservation biology class.

The class is a part of my environmental science minor. It's an incredible class with so much hands-on learning. Also, I think it is so different from many of the other biology classes because it deals with such a specific niche topic, but can still be related to many other areas of biology and even beyond. It really changes how you view the world we live in.

How does the class support your other academic interests?

This class is an incredible connection between my communication and journalism major and my environmental science minor. I find myself taking the communication theories I've learned through my CJ courses and linking them to environmental concepts or current events dealing with environmental topics. It's a really cool mix of concepts. I also think there's such a lack of knowledge about scientific concepts within the journalism or communication world in general, that it's interesting to be able to give biologists a perspective from the communication or journalism world that they might not have otherwise been able to hear or understand. I'm planning on pursuing a career in environmental or animal law as I move on to law school after graduation, so the conservation topics I've learned in this class will be directly mixed with the communication aspects from my major. 

What was your impression of Hunt Hill?

Hunt Hill is an incredible place. It's truly an environmental sanctuary right here in Wisconsin. From the hiking trails, to the incredible people who work there, Hunt Hill offers so much to those who visit. I'm glad we were able to not only be positively influenced by the knowledge and experiences they had to offer, but also to help them out so they can keep providing such an awesome place. Seeing a UWEC grad as the head of such a cool place really did make an impact. It shows that the skills we are learning here are so applicable to the "real world" and truly do have a purpose. Hearing her talk about her experiences after UWEC put into perspective how amazing our programs are and how marketable they make us as graduates.

What were some of the highlights of your time at Hunt Hill?

Some of the highlights were definitely being able to hike the incredible trails. Taking our classroom knowledge and putting it into action in the field is always beneficial and, honestly, just fun. Probably what sticks out most to me about the trip was the community service. I was able to build Leopold-style benches with one of the board members at Hunt Hill. He was awesome to work with and learn from. Not only did I get to give back to an incredible place, but I was able to also learn more about it, and see some of the people who continually put work into it. Working with the others at Hunt Hill really inspires you and makes you want to give back more, and keep coming back.

What do you hope to do in the future?

I will be attending law school at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I'm hoping to pursue a career in environmental or animal law. This class was able to directly address this super-specific area of practice, which was incredible. 

How will this and other experiences you're having as a Blugold help you achieve those goals?

This conservation biology class allowed me to explore and expand my knowledge in so many areas, ranging from plants to animals to habitat. It is truly giving me the strong base of knowledge I will need as I pursue my law degree and continue to encounter conservation in the future. All of the experiences I have gained as a Blugold have been so hands on that I have some of the practical experience that I don't know others have been fortunate enough to have in their undergraduate years. I don't feel like I'm just a student; I feel as though I'm a valued member of the UWEC community who has important thoughts, ideas and abilities. Professors, such as Dr. Neff, have worked continually to make sure I am incorporating all of my interests into their classes, and making sure that my unique viewpoints are seen by others and explored further. I feel valued as a Blugold student, and that's really cool.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Just because you have interests that are (seemingly) so different from each other doesn't mean it isn't achievable to combine them into something truly incredible. I love conservation biology, but I also love communication. The professors at UWEC are so willing to make sure that you can explore everything you want to with your time here and it is incredible. There are great opportunities — like this class — to really follow your passions AND gain practical experience.

Photo caption: Senior Sarah Doege (right) spent a day working alongside a Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary board member as part of a conservation biology class outing that combined field work with service projects at the northern Wisconsin environmental center.