Carlee Heger's Adventure Learning Grant Application

Community Resilience and Adaptation Regarding Climate
Change in the South Pacific
Carlee Heger
Email: or
Standing: Sophomore - 5th quarter at Fairhaven College
Major: BS Biology - with Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology Focus
If I am awarded the adventure learning grant, I will travel and live in two places in the South
Pacific: Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. During my time abroad I intend to learn about biodiversity
and sustainability through scientific frameworks and traditional ecological knowledge by working with
community-based organizations that deal with climate change. Using insects as a barometer, I will
explore ethnoecology and biology, looking specifically at species plasticity and adaptation. I hope to
leave with a better understanding of how humans are impacting and impacted by a changing climate in
this distinct region of the Earth.
With this grant, I plan to explore the South Pacific region and focus my learning in the ecology of
its singularly diverse environments. I am interested in understanding how different ecosystems across
various places are interconnected. The following question will guide my learning abroad:
Looking through scientific and indigenous ecological lenses, how are species impacted by
and adapting to a changing climate?
In order to explore this question, I will be traveling to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. These two
countries have some of the most unique and crucial ecosystems on the planet and are perfect places to
begin to understand how ecology, culture, and climate change interact with one another.
New Zealand is a country rich in culture and biodiversity. It broke away as its own landmass 65
million years ago. Since then, New Zealand has become predominantly inhabited by insects and birds and
is one of the few places on Earth where there are almost no native mammals. New Zealand is also home
to the indigenous Māori people. Today the Māori make up 14% of the population and have historically
played a critical role in the management of the ecosystems.
New Zealand’s environment and isolation led to the development of endemic species that evolved
in unique ways. Many of these native species can only survive within the delicate balance of this
ecosystem. In New Zealand, diverse ecosystems - such as glaciers and coral reefs - exist within close
geographical proximity to one another; therefore, all of these ecosystems are intricately connected. This
specialization within species, however, makes New Zealand more susceptible to the negative effects of a
changing climate. I am interested in studying how such specialized species can be bioindicators of
environmental change and ecosystem health.
I am especially interested in looking at the role that insects play in these ecosystems, and how
they can be indicator species for assessing environmental change. Species that have existed within a
specific environment for a long period of time are a good option for studying climate cycles, adaption,
and evolution. It is my goal to be able to research such species and investigate their plasticity in the light
of climate change.
In order to start exploring my guiding question, I will begin my learning abroad working with
academic and community-based organizations in New Zealand. I have been invited to work alongside Dr.
Mary Morgan-Richards who is a professor of evolutionary biology at Massey University in New Zealand.
She will be conducting field research on the population of two wētā species looking at how past climate
cycles have influenced their distribution and abundance. Wētā is the common name for about 70 species
of flightless grasshoppers endemic to New Zealand. They are among some of the heaviest insects in the
world. Wētā have been around for 190 million years, evolving and becoming specialized to New
Zealand's environment. Because New Zealand doesn't have any native mammals aside from a few species
of bats, these prehistoric insects were able to fill the role of rodents. However, influence from
colonization and globalization has introduced rodents, which are dangerous invasive species with no
natural predators. Wētā often become a food source for the rodents. Combined with other risk factors,
several species of wētā are currently threatened.
Population genetics can give insight into a species’ response to climate change. This information
could show how wētā are responding to the global climate crisis and predict how they continue to adapt. I
will be participating in field research observing where two species of wētā interact in order to detect
changes in distribution and abundance as temperatures continue to rise in New Zealand. In addition, I will
also be accessing fidelity to burrows. This research will require data from numerous seasons over several
years. I have been invited to participate in this project for 2 – 6 months. This work will allow me to learn
about wētā ecology through hands-on work monitoring and recording their population in a regenerating
forest habitat.
Through the course of this research, I will be living in a nearby tow n called Palmerston North on
the North Island of New Zealand and bicycling to the field site approximately 30 minutes away. I will
need to find my own housing nearby, because that is not included with this research opportunity. Ideally, I
will rent a room in the area. This opportunity is a perfect beginning for the exploratory adventure learning
that I want to experience, because it allows me to go in-depth in a unique topic which is specific to an
area that I am very interested in. Additionally, this experience will help me build foundations of
information and questions I can bring back to Fairhaven College and my own life-long education. It also
gives me a grounding in the South Pacific which I can use to network and plan for the rest of my time
Following the research on wētā in New Zealand, I plan to travel to Papua New Guinea. Although
I do not have concrete plans in Papua New Guinea yet, I have decided to go there because of its unique
environment, biodiversity, and culture. I plan to remain flexible with the rest of my time abroad to take
advantage of opportunities. While I will continue to seek out work with insects, I also hope to become
involved with indigenous-run organizations to learn about community resistance to climate change.
Papua New Guinea is home to one of the largest forests in the world. Like New Zealand, it
developed in isolation and has some of the highest numbers of endemic species on Earth. Being one of the
largest islands on the planet, both the ecosystem and cultures evolved largely on their own for the last
40,000 years. Because of this, it is a particularly unique place to research sustainability.
In addition to the fact that it is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, Papua New Guinea
has a rich cultural history. It is home to over 7,000 different indigenous groups, many of which have their
own language. Over 90% of the land in Papua New Guinea is under “Organic Law” meaning that, in
general, people cannot buy land but rather must lease it from the traditional indigenous land owners. The
government, or anyone else who wishes to use the land, must first work with the tribes or clans that
originally inhabited the area. Papua New Guinea is also almost entirely self-sufficient in providing their
own food through their agriculture and pig farming. All of these factors make Papua New Guinea a
perfect place to learn from the intersectionality of traditional ecological knowledge and sustainability.
I am currently waiting to hear from several community based organizations I have found through
the Wildlife Conservation Society as well as awaiting a reply from the Papua New Guinea Embassy to
learn about potential programs or organizations that may not be online.
As far as where I will be living in both of these places, many of the details regarding my housing
in either location have yet to be solidified. It is my intent to experience and connect with the communities
I live in without disrupting them. While I can look at quantitative scientific data regarding climate change
in these places, I believe it’s important to consider the qualitative side as well. This research will be
conducted through conversation with people who have lived there for generations, learning about their
own oral histories and how they have been personally impacted by an evolving ecosystem. A holistic
approach will foster opportunities for collaboration, research, and learning with the local communities.
Ideally, a homestay in Papua New Guinea could be a perfect platform for this kind of learning.
This grant is important to me because I want to take a step back from the traditional Western
education system that I have been a part of my entire life and challenge myself with new ways of gaining
knowledge and insight. Being present in life and learning in a non-academic, non-US centric setting will
give me the opportunity to self-reflect and gain a wider range of perspectives.
I look forward to sharing my experience with Fairhaven and the Western Washington community
when I return through several facets. Doing slideshow presentations about my experience to the Fairhaven
community during scholars day or other various events will help me share my learning and also help me
process my own experiences. I have learned through previous travel that journalling is valuable, and I
plan to keep a journal throughout my time abroad. Another way I can give back to the Fairhaven
community is through sharing parts of my journal in publications. Past grant-recipients have shared with
me that it is meaningful to attend grant information sessions and help future grant recipients answer
questions. I know it was extremely exciting and reassuring to talk to someone who had been on the grant
about their experience. In addition to this, I would like to bring my education back to the scientific
community. Learning in a non-traditional atmosphere will not only help me bring valuable feedback to
the biology department at Western Washington University but also help me develop how I want to
practice science in my own career and life.
Throughout my life, there have been some important questions that have been developing around
my role in society. In addition to everything I am hoping to learn about the world on this grant, some of
the most valuable knowledge I will take home will be knowledge about myself. How do I shape the
ecosystems around me? How do the ecosystems shape me? What is my role in these ecosystems? What do
I take from these ecosystems? What do I produce within them?
Thank you for considering my adventure learning grant proposal. I welcome the opportunity to
represent Fairhaven College abroad, and I look forward to hearing back regarding it.
Personal Statement
Over the last two years as a student at Fairhaven College and Western Washington University, I
have developed a passion for science and a drive to be a biologist. At this point in my education, I am
striving to understand what unique perspectives I can bring to my field. Being at Fairhaven has taught me
that I want to approach science holistically, because complex questions cannot be answered by strictly
looking at data. The adventure learning grant will afford me the opportunity to discover how I can
incorporate cultural wisdoms, indigenous approaches, and non-Western perspectives into a scientific
framework. Exploring the world through hands-on experience in my field will help me move beyond the
classroom. This grant will change my life by giving me the real world problem solving skills I need which
can’t be learned from a textbook. Being awarded this grant now, after my sophomore year when I have
attained important foundational knowledge, will allow me to fully integrate the experiences from my time
abroad into the balance of my college education and collaborate with the Fairhaven and larger Western
By my very nature, I am a person who is comfortable with discomfort. I have always sought out
learning and growth in non-traditional ways. I am also fortunate to have grown up in a family that was
constantly exploring the outer fringes of nature, throwing me into discomforting circumstances, and
developing in a me a ruggedness that has served me well and inspired my interest in the biological world.
This grant will provide me with the resources, space and time to fully discover myself through a full year
of exploration that I would otherwise never have the opportunity to do. I have always been a diligent
planner and analyzer, but this grant will give both an intensive and extended learning platform to evolve
and grow in ways that at this point I may not even conceptualize.
A common thread that has run through my work and volunteer experiences is my love of
coaching and mentoring. Beginning in junior high, I was an elite-level equestrian vaulter, and I had the
opportunity to train kids around the world. This is where I learned that success is holistic, not just
technical, in all aspects of life. I have continued to work as a coach and be a leader in different capacities
since that time. When I retired from competitive vaulting, I discovered skateboarding, and it has become
an extremely important aspect of my life. In Colorado, I helped run a monthly women and non-binary
night at our local non-profit indoor skatepark, and I continue to volunteer when I am there. I also worked
an all-girls skateboarding summer camp to inspire more girls to get involved in the sport. Now, in
Bellingham, I am part of a queer/femme skate collective in which I participate in meet-ups and skate
I am currently employed as a paraeducator at Shuksan Middle School through the Bellingham
School District. Through an after school program called BEATS, “Be At Shuksan”, I teach students in
6th through 8th grade how to skateboard. This job has been so rewarding and educational for me.
Although I have done many jobs working with kids before, this job has taught me so much about myself
and about the diversity within the human experience, especially as an adolescent learning how to navigate
the world. The BEATS program is special because it gives students a safe, inclusive space to be after
school in which they can participate in many enriching opportunities they may not have had access to
before. Through this program, I have been able to take kids on field trips to Seattle, find ways to get them
their own skateboard, and work to build and gain access to new skateable obstacles. I truly value being
able to help create communities with people who might have not seen a space for themselves.
I am fortunate to have traveled broadly in my life, both with my family and on my own. I am an
extremely independent individual, and this will not be my first time traveling to another country, or
purposefully pushing myself outside my comfort zone. However, it will be my first time being this far
from home and for such an extended amount of time.
In my first major trip without my family, I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon during my freshman
year of my expeditionary learning high school. This experience taught me a lot about climate change and
is where much of my interests in biology and entomology began. We were able to work and learn with
local communities regarding flooding, infrastructure, and health. We also visited a research station where
we helped collect data regarding plant material consumed by insects. This trip cemented my interest in
traveling and studying the natural world.
During my junior year of highschool, I traveled to Mexico with a local dentist, Colleen Shultz.
Several friends and I were trained prior to leaving and volunteered to clean teeth while Colleen did
dentistry work at an elementary school on Isla Mujeres. It was rewarding to help provide important health
care, but looking back on it I have to question my positionality. I also realized I am a white American
who, though interested in pursuing medicine at the time, had no practical experience in dentistry and
spoke only mediocre Spanish. Looking back, this was an important reflection. I can and will take what I
have learned from that experience with me on the adventure learning grant as I engage with local
communities and examine what kind of potential positive and negative influences I am bringing.
The summer before my freshman year of college I took part in a month long mountaineering trip
in the Waddington Range, British Columbia. Over the month, we trekked from the East to the West side
of the range. This was one of the most influential and challenging months of my life in learning to be
comfortable with discomfort. A reality check of sorts, this adventure brought me to focus on my core
needs as a human for survival and reminded me that every action matters. The uncertainty of death can be
used to empower rather than frighten me. This expedition taught me the value in keeping Earth wild,
rugged, and sacred. The unforgiving terrain that we traveled instilled in me a true gratitude for nature.
If accepted, this adventure learning grant will be my first time traveling to the South Pacific and
also the first time traveling in a region that is not majority white or Latino. I chose this region in my grant
not only for the exceptional biodiversity in nature but also to challenge the Western lens through which I
have been educated. Although I know this grant will challenge me in ways I haven't been challenged
before, I feel well prepared. This is not to suggest that I won’t struggle, but rather that I am committed to
embracing the hard times as learning opportunities for myself within this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Your investment in me will be a good choice, not because I am perfect, but because I am one
hundred percent committed and prepared to take advantage of the grants intended purpose. This
opportunity now will help me give back to our own community at Fairhaven and Western Washington as
well as the communities I live and work in throughout my future in science.