My name is Janelle Lopez, and I am an Environment For The Americas (EFTA) 2016 alumni from Austin, Texas. From the age of six, I knew I wanted to work with animals; animals were my biggest passion during my youth, and all I wanted was to enter a field where I can help all kinds; big and small. During my first years in college, I decided to pursue veterinary classes since I knew it was one way to interact with animals on a personal level. It was during the middle of my sophomore year at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, however, that I couldn’t imagine myself treating the same animals repeatedly. Don’t get me wrong; I love pets, but I felt there was another calling for me, and I needed to find out which career path was the one that best fit me.
I began to research other types of programs that would still involve working with animals. I began to take environmental courses and joined a small program called Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). This program allowed me to take part in my own independent research project that I showcased in the 12th Annual Pathways Student Research Symposium. This was a huge opportunity for me, and I wanted to succeed with this research project. There were only two mentors that could help me with this project and only one of them focused on animals. It was vital that I connected with this professor, Dr. Kim Withers, because if she or I decided we were not a match, then I would have to turn to another professor. After my first meeting with Dr. Withers, it was clear to both of us that we were the perfect match, and she introduced me to the astonishing life of bird biology. Dr. Withers help me every step of the way: showing me different tactics I could take in creating my research project; which bird species would be a good subject to study and where I could find valuable information in the library and online. Through different types of obstacles, I manage to create my project on the behavior study of Royal tern non-breeders in Corpus Christi. It was a huge success as a program and on a personal level and my path pursuing the adventures of a bird biologist began.
After I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Animal Biology, I was recruited as an intern for EFTA. It felt like a miracle to find an internship position so quickly. Many of my friends and family said that after I graduated, it would feel like the world had frozen, and it would be very difficult to find a job of any type. What was more thrilling was that I was going to travel to, Alaska and spend seven months traveling to different islands to count shorebirds. It was truly a dream come true, and the training EFTA hosted in San Diego prepared me for the work. Sue Bonfield and all the staff were excellent and taught us about birding, education programs, and how to communicate with communities to join our International Migratory Bird Day (#BirdDay) events to celebrate the magnificence of birds in migration.
Though I felt prepared for my trip to Alaska, I was very nervous. I was traveling on my own to a state I had never been to and working with a federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service. For some reason, as I traveled from plane to plane to get to my first destination in Alaska, I pictured intimidating wildlife rangers with black sunglasses staring me down. The locals and staff members I met however, were amazing, humble, and warm-hearted people who love nature as much as I do. I never once felt intimidated or left. Everyone invited me to fun events. I participated in Wrangell’s July 4th weekend where I competed in a water log rolling competition. I went to the Blue Berry Festival in Ketchikan and bought jam and syrup forfamily back in Texas, and I taught at the Annual Tern Festival in Yakutat and saw the Aleutian terns. EFTA had taken me on the trip that I, my family and our closest friends would always remember, and I can’t thank them more for allowing me to have this extraordinary opportunity. My experience went beyond the field of counting shorebirds; I had the chance to assist with Bald Eagle, harbor seal, Snow Geese and Stellar sea lion surveys, work with a witty timber crew that loves Dungeness crabs, conduct counts and sample survey on salmon (While avoiding brown bears); travel to remote islands at the break of dawn to count songbirds, conduct environmental surveys from green luscious forests to high mountains and travel the enormous Situk river by canoe.
After my internship ended in September, two amazing events occurred: First, my friend who was also a 2016 EFTA intern, helped me contact a professor from Oregon State University-Corvallis, Dr. Donald Lyons. He is an advocate for seabird research and monitoring and is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service in Yakutat to conduct research that will successfully track Aleutian tern migration patterns. Dr. Lyons’ work was exactly what I was looking for in a Master’s Program, and I kept in touch with him during my adventure to further my career opportunity in the future. The second event was that I was accepted into a two-month bird banding internship in Klamath Bird Observatory, where I met amazing bird enthusiasts who love our feathered friends as much as I do. It was truly a heart-warming feeling to meet such remarkable people who I connect with both on a career and personal level. The trainers and my supervisor, Robert Frey, made me feel welcome.
Once my internship year ended just before the holidays, my life adventure was far from over. After nine months of travel and gaining experience that it would have take years to achieve, EFTA had helped me build a path a tremendous future. Just recently, I accepted a seasonal technician position in Yakutat Alaska, working with my previous supervisors, Susan Oehlers, Dr. Sanjay Pyare from University of Southern Alaska-Juneau, and Dr. Lyons. I will be assisting in putting satellite trackers on Aleutian Terns, monitoring nesting activity and success using trail cameras and observations, and studying their diet. It is truly an honor to work with these amazing biologists. There is nothing more that I could ask for, and I thank Dr. Withers and EFTA for all they have done to get me as far as I am now. Just look at how far I have come. Spread the word: EFTA gives you wings to fly.