"If you had asked me four years ago where I would end up going to school, I definitely wouldn't have replied University of Idaho, as it’s a ways from the California Mojave Desert where I grew up. But I couldn't be happier where I am."
~ Rebecca Johnson
FAVORITE VANDAL MEMORIESThe student/ alumni volunteer weekends at MOSS in McCall. "It's absolutely gorgeous, and I've made some great friendships with fellow volunteers. I love being able to return and each time see the legacy of our labors on the school, whether it be a grass lawn, pathways, new plants or a fresh coat of stain."
The annual College of Natural Resources' Jay Gruenfeld Student Leadership Retreat. As a freshman I was an attendant, and as a sophomore I was a planner. Each experience has led to my personal growth as both a leader and a team member.
Attending football games. "The sense of camaraderie, rushing the field, screaming until my voice is lost, the general sense of excitement!"
Mojave to Moscow
The word "scholar" typically brings to mind stacks of books or white coats and laboratories.
Rebecca Johnson is shaking up that stereotype.
Her laboratories have included the tropical outdoors of Costa Rica, the marine coral reefs of Panama, Idaho's McCall Outdoor Science School and the lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, La. The common bond in these diverse environments: they're all part of her University of Idaho experience.
"I narrowed down my school search by looking for schools with either 'ecology' or 'conservation biology' degrees; Idaho was perfect because it had both in one program," says Johnson, who currently has dual majors in ecology and conservation biology and wildlife resources.
"Once I visited the University of Idaho, I was struck by the friendliness and support of the faculty," she says. "I wanted to be in a place where I wasn’t just another number, where I could readily find that support and build relationships."
Another tribute to her ability to succeed: Johnson was named a Udall Scholar – one of only 80 students nationwide to receive the honor and accompanying scholarship.
"What sets her apart from other students is her willingness to continually venture out beyond her comfort zone with the intent of challenging herself and growing her diverse abilities," wrote Alton Campbell, associate director of the University Honors Program, when he nominated her for the Udall program.
From her first semester at the University, Johnson has been involved in hands-on research. Her freshman year, she worked in Professor Lisette Waits’ Conservation and Ecological Genetics Laboratory under the tutelage of post-doctorate Stephen Spear. That research was beneficial to her long-term plans, and shaped her desire to pursue a career in conservation genetics.
"The scope of this field amazes me," says Johnson. "We can judge the health of an entire population from just a handful of genetic samples! I also love this field because the same basic principles can be applied to virtually any organism, and the same techniques can answer many different questions about a population."
But she wasn't content with just having one project. The fall of her freshman year, she also took on a project studying the genetic DNA crossover of a Wyoming population of the midget faded rattlesnake. She has grown her leadership and collaboration skills by joining university clubs and committees, including: Wildlife Club, Ecology and Conservation Biology Club, College of Natural Resources Student Advisory Board, and Honors Student Advisory Board. She has participated in several community service projects, including a spring break hurricane relief project in Louisiana in 2010.
"The University and the CNR have given me a ton of opportunities to not only develop my leadership and professional skills, but also build relationships with professionals in the field and my fellow students," she notes.
Her professional summer experiences have been focused and complimentary, as she served as a bat surveyor for the California Bureau of Land Management, as a field technician for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and as a trail crew volunteer for the SCA/Alaska Bureau of Land Management. And she just completed a semester study abroad experience in Monteverde, Costa Rica, where she worked with the Council on International Educational Exchange to study tropical ecology and conservation and to conduct an independent research project.
"I feel that Rebecca is one of the best young conservation biology minds in the country and that she will make a significant difference in conservation biology over her career," says Campbell. "I expect her research to contribute significantly to species conservation and thus to public policy."
"I want to enter the conservation field, because I am deeply concerned about the increasing loss of biodiversity on our planet," Johnson says. "I am of the mind that each plant and animal has its own niche and role to fill in the environment; if we lose too many of these key players, our ecosystems, and all the services they provide humanity, could come crashing down."
"I think this Udall reward reflects as much on the quality of University of Idaho and the College of Natural Resources as it does on me," says Johnson. "Without the opportunities the University has provided me and the amazing support of my faculty recommenders, this recognition definitely would not have been possible."