Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program Is Making a Difference

Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program Is Making a Difference

Today’s conservation organizations recognize the need to cultivate the next generation of researchers, managers, and leaders in the field. One major challenge to that is identifying early undergraduate students with an interest in conservation and providing opportunities that inspire them to continue on that path. Achieving this goal is particularly difficult for students from demographic groups that are under-represented in conservation agencies and organizations.

Students in Doris Duke Program

The Doris Duke Conservation Scholarship Program Collaborative (hereafter Collaborative), launched in 2013 is helping overcome that barrier. The Collaborative is a partnership among the Doris Duke Conservation Scholarship Program (DDCSP), five host universities (University of Idaho, University of Arizona, North Carolina State University, University of Florida, and University of Massachusetts at Amherst), the USGS Cooperative Research Units Program (CRU), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The objectives of the Collaborative are to: increase diversity in the fish and wildlife profession by training and mentoring undergraduate students; give students training in study design and research methods; help students develop a professional network and a supportive peer group; and provide students with on-the-job training with partner agencies and organizations.

The Collaborative enables faculty to engage freshmen or sophomores in a program that includes hands-on, field-based experience and a paid internship with a conservation agency or organization over two summers. Each year, the five universities involved in the Collaborative recruit a cohort of 4-5 students per university. Competition for a seat in the program is stiff, but program administrators take a holistic look at each student’s application, not relying on just grade point averages. Students from under-represented socio-cultural or geographic groups, including first-generation college students, veterans, African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or economically disadvantaged individuals are strongly encouraged to apply.

Through the Collaborative, the USGS has provided funding to the individual Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units at the host universities to support graduate student mentors that work closely with the undergraduates in the DDCSP. Each undergraduate student accepted into the program is paired with a faculty mentor and graduate student mentor in a nested multi-mentor structure to help guide their development for the full two years of the program. After they complete the program, the students become part of the Collaborative’s alumni group that stays connected via social media and occasional alumni retreats. Hence, the program provides a life-long professional network.

During the first summer, the undergraduate students are introduced to qualitative and quantitative research methods to build analytical skills. They are also exposed to a broad range of environmental settings and work with a diverse mix of peers and professionals to nurture their curiosity about the natural world and humans' place in it. For example, the students design and carry-out an independent research project their first summer with the help of their faculty and graduate student mentors. They also gain skills in leadership and communication and begin building a network that provides support and inspiration for the career path they have chosen.

During the second summer, each student completes an internship co-designed with a partner agency or organization. The interns are paid by the Collaborative, making it easier for partners to provide students with meaningful work experience. Additionally, the scholars and their mentors attend a Conservation Leadership Week sponsored by the FWS at the National Conservation Training Center and a national professional society conference where scholars give presentations summarizing the results of their independent research projects. This year, the students will be attending The Wildlife Society conference in Spokane, WA.

At the recent Annual Cooperators’ meeting for the Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Idaho (UI), Unit Leader Courtney Conway described the Collaborative program’s impact. Since 2014, UI has accepted 39 students into the program and 100% of students they’ve accepted have completed the two-year program. The college graduation rate for students accepted into the Collaborative is 90%, compared to 59% for UI undergraduates overall. Conway reported that the students have authored or co-authored 10 peer-reviewed publications and 40% have gone on to graduate school, with 20% proceeding to PhD programs. At the University of Idaho, this is the result of a mentoring team that involves Conway, Dr. Kerri Vierling, other faculty, and multiple graduate student mentors who provide guidance to these Collaborative students. All but a few of the students not pursuing higher degrees landed jobs with state or federal agencies or are working for other conservation organizations after graduation. Conway said, “Feedback from students who have completed the program has been exceptional—most students describe it as life-changing.”

The DDCSP supports similar programs at four other Universities. While participation at the five host universities in the Collaborative is limited to students enrolled in those five universities, the programs at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, and Yale University are open to any undergraduate student who is a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or Dreamer. Additional information about these programs is available here.

Photo Credit
Anne Yen
May 16, 2022