Hiking, Song Birds, and Finding a Path to Environmentalism through Earthwatch

By Judith Santano, Ignite Fellow 2013 and Earthwatch Educator Program Intern

The first time I can remember falling in love with the earth was when I went to Wyoming to study songbirds for two weeks. I can remember being mesmerized by everything around me and was struggling to take it all in. I couldn’t believe that the world was so green and that the air was so clean. I was even having trouble breathing because the air was so smog-free. Every day I woke up to the sound of countless birds and deer outside my cabin. That trip was full of many firsts for me. From hiking, seeing a bear, learning bird calls, and seeing the Milky Way, to just being away from home. Each day was a new adventure full of excitement, laughter, learning, intellectual and emotional growth, and pure, unadulterated happiness.

To this day, nothing has changed my life as radically as those two weeks did.

I had always been the nerdy kid who loved science, but being on this trip was like flipping a switch in terms of environmentalism. Being from L.A., I had no prior experience being immersed in nature like that. I never really knew what the environment entailed, or that it was at risk of being destroyed. After being in the middle of it, I realized how important and necessary it was to care for the environment. This trip opened my eyes to a whole new world and showed me that there was more than one way to love science. Although I didn’t completely know it when I was 15, Earthwatch would influence the path I would take in my studies, career, and life.

Buffalo grazing in Wyoming
Judith Santano
Judith with her teammates

The scientific research I was able to participate in was not what I was expecting at all. Our days consisted of hiking across rivers and through visible clouds of pollen to find songbirds that most people wouldn’t usually slow down to appreciate. We banded songbirds and kept track of their nests in order to monitor changes in their populations. I remember I was in disbelief when our scientist told us that the data we were collecting was going into a national database that has existed for decades. It felt so cool to be a part of something so significant and bigger than just our team. Having to patiently observe these beautiful creatures that I had previously taken for granted was such an eye-opening experience. It taught me to see the importance of everything around me, no matter how small it may seem.

I still find myself enchanted by the birds I see every day of my life. I always slow down to watch them fly and try to catch the subtle differences between their calls.







Judith's team spelling Earthwatch with lights

Now it’s been four years since my trip, and I still constantly talk about how I fell in love with the earth in Wyoming. I’m going into my junior year at Stanford University and I’m majoring in Earth Systems. I’ve chosen a track that allows me to study the impact humans have on the environment, but also gives me the opportunity to learn how to be an effective science communicator, as well as the importance of environmental education. Earthwatch has always been my role model in the process of figuring out that science, communication, and education are what I’m passionate about. For the past four years, I’ve dreamt of returning to work for Earthwatch and repaying them for leaving such a lasting impression on my life. And this summer, I finally got the opportunity as I traveled to Boston to intern with the organization. I cannot express how fortunate I feel to be interning with the Ignite program – a program that had such a profound impact on my life – and be a part of the organization that changes people’s lives.

Whenever someone asks me why I picked Earth Systems as my major, I respond with, “Because my heart yearns for the earth.”

And it all started with Earthwatch. They gave me the opportunity to fall in love with the earth. Those memories and those feelings of wanting to work for something bigger than myself are what I will carry with me for the rest of my life.


To learn more about this Earthwatch fellowship, visit the website Ignite LA Student Science Awards.