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By Kristin Burns on February 15, 2019

Erica Orcutt Maps Out Her Experience

Got plans this summer? Here’s a suggestion: consider applying for the Planetary Health Summer Work Experience Program. If you’re interested in helping address the challenges that our planet faces through research, educational outreach and policy development, then this might be the fellowship for you.

Offered through the UC Global Health Institute’s Planetary Health Center of Expertise, the Summer Work Experience Program matches undergraduate and graduate students with opportunities provided in collaboration with the center’s partners in the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension and the California Department of Conservation.

Fellows take on projects related to natural resources, agriculture, climate change, and environmental and health policy. This program also connects students with university faculty and on-site mentors.

Projects from last year’s fellows explored rice farming practices and resource use, summer youth science education programs, integrated pest management to benefit agriculture, and fire and emergency preparedness, among others.

A mapping match

2018 fellow Erica Orcutt was matched with the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Land Resource Protection (DLRP). Orcutt’s Ph.D. research with the Geography Graduate Group at UC Davis included habitat mapping and analysis for the Mohave ground squirrel, a threatened species in California. At DLRP, she chose a project in land use planning and mapping.

Orcutt studied DLRP’s Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program, which aids in agricultural land resource planning. Farmland throughout California is mapped according to soil quality and irrigation status.

“My project asked, “What would the mapping and policy implications be if we changed how we classify farmland?” said Orcutt. “I traced the history of the program to understand why the mapping was being done, and then assessed if it made sense to change things.”

Orcutt worked alongside experts in mapping, law and policy. She observed the intricacies of problem solving and decision making from multiple perspectives and was excited to see how all of the pieces work together to advance research to legislation.

She found the Department of Conservation to be a very welcoming environment, and appreciated the support of her on-site mentor, Chief Science Advisor Jeff Onsted.

“Jeff introduced me to the etiquette and culture of working in a state agency,” said Orcutt. “He was readily available and gave me many opportunities to see and hear what was going on across its divisions and programs.”

Opportunity everywhere

Beyond initial project assignments, Orcutt and another member of her fellow cohort, Cristina Murillo-Barrick, helped plan logistics for the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit affiliate event at UC Davis. Hosted by the Department of Conservation and the UC Davis One Health Institute, the event featured 30 presenters as well as 24 poster presenters who explored how to manage land use to maintain productive agriculture, as well as strategies that balance population and planetary health needs.

“The symposium turned into an additional opportunity that wasn’t planned,” said Orcutt. “I liked that we were given options to do activities outside our projects.”

Orcutt also participated in a field trip to Hollister and took advantage of on-site lectures. Agency Director David Bunn gave an open lecture on how the legislative process worked in California. The Center for Biological Diversity and American Farmland Trust led a brownbag seminar on the relationship between water and climate change, and the impacts to agriculture and land.

Planetary Health Fellow Erica Orcutt participates in a fieldwork photoshoot for the Department of Conservation (Julia Goolsby).
Planetary Health Fellow Erica Orcutt (far right) participates in a fieldwork photoshoot in Hollister for the California Department of Conservation (Julia Goolsby).

Looking forward

Going into the fellowship, Orcutt had wanted to know what a state agency was like and if it were something she would consider as a career. Anticipating the completion of her Ph.D. at the end of this year, she said it is definitely an option.

“The Department of Conservation is very dynamic and important to the people and state of California,” said Orcutt. “I was encouraged to see science policy in action.”

Ideally, Orcutt would like to teach. She’s found ways to bring what she learned in her fellowship to an undergraduate class that she teaches in environmental impact analysis at UC Davis.

“I’m trying to teach my students that the environment is not just nature, it’s also the built environment that humans rely on as a society,” said Orcutt. “My fellowship helped me bring up good points about these connections and why it matters when we pave over ag soil.”

The priority deadline for applications to the Summer Work Experience Program is February 15, 2019 5:00 pm PST. Applications submitted after the priority deadline will be considered if placements are available. Visit the Planetary Health website to learn more about the program, application process, and previous fellows and their projects. Please email planetaryhealth@ucdavis.edu with any questions.