Earthwatch Institute Teen team facilitator Tera Dornfeld poses for a picture while aboard a whale research boat in Dana Point, CA. Photo credit Shane Keena

Tera Dornfeld, who has a background in marine biology, knows that research isn’t all about white lab coats and number crunching. Her lab includes the beaches of Costa Rica, where she studies leatherback sea turtles and the people who fight to save them. She’s currently pursuing a doctorate in planning, policy & design at UCI with an interest in citizen science.

“A lot of times, as a scientist, your work is published in journals, and if you’re lucky, maybe 100 people will read about it,” Dornfeld says. “By working with teenagers and volunteers who make presentations in their schools and communities, the data and findings extend far beyond academic circles.”

She received the 2013-14 Dean’s Award for Community Engagement from the School of Social Ecology in recognition of her work and to support her efforts to design and conduct citizen science programs with local conservation organizations. Each year, the Dean’s Award honors students with financial assistance from alumni contributors. Their generosity and that of thousands of others helped raise $1 billion during UCI’s Shaping the Future campaign, the first in Orange County to set – and reach – such a lofty goal.

The funding allowed Dornfeld to focus on her research and support volunteers in the field rather than take on a full-time teaching load. “Thanks to this award, I was able to do my work and make a difference in the community by exposing students to fieldwork,” she says. “I feel like I’m helping others reimagine the way they think about science. Research can take place in different settings, not just in a lab full of men. It can involve women and young people too.”

In 2014, Dornfeld partnered with Earthwatch Institute on research at Lake Tahoe that engaged 10 Los Angeles-area high school students in data collection. She trained and supervised the students, who measured the height and number of trees in the region. The project informed local resource management and strengthened environmental protections under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.The students gained a greater understanding of how trees grow and under what conditions they thrive, and many experienced camping and cooking outdoors for the first time.

“I see citizen science as having great potential to increase the number of participants in collecting and democratizing scientific data,” Dornfeld says. “It also allows the layperson to interact with scientists and discover how research is performed in the field.”

A Minnesota native, Dornfeld earned a master’s degree in biology at Purdue University and is in her third year of doctoral work at UCI. She’s spending this fall in Costa Rica and expects to graduate in 2018.

Her thesis explores how different entities can come together to create management plans that benefit both people and the environment.

The leatherbacks – which Dornfeld calls “the biggest and coolest” sea turtles ever – are threatened by poachers who go after their prized eggs; development that brings more people and invasive species to the beach; fisheries; and climate change.

“I’m interested in looking at the people living in the area and how they can support sea turtle conservation,” she says. “Many people in Costa Rica feel a duty to take care of sea turtles.”

And why UCI?

“UCI is so strong in environmental research and sustainability efforts,” Dornfeld says. “It’s consistently ranked at the top of the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools list, and I knew I would be supported by faculty and students who are equally passionate about the environment.”

– Laura Rico, UCI