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Advice from an Alumni Leadership Award Winner

Hands-on research with leatherback sea turtles and giant Galapagos tortoises ignited a fire in EPI alumna Elise Zharri that's yet to be extinguished. Her time in the field sparked big ideas for improving the planet - starting with her own community and EPI's Alumni Leadership Award provided the funds she needed to get her project off the ground.

Twelve years later, as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, she still reflects on her time in the field as well as her Alumni Leadership Award and how those experiences shaped her ongoing search for education and her drive to continue improving conservation efforts at home and abroad.

Q: How did your field experience with EPI impact your view on connecting your community with conservation issues?

A: Through my field experience with EPI, I learned the power of knowledge. Spending time learning about sea turtles in Costa Rica and island ecosystems in the Galapagos opened my mind both to the beauty of the natural world and the threats that these creatures face. Learning about the life cycle and migratory patterns of sea turtles and then getting to interact with turtles in person made me attached to them and gave me a desire to do whatever I could to save them. I have carried that lesson with me and try to teach others about the beauty of nature, so they can feel the same connection I did and have the same desire to help out.

Q: Tell us a little about the project that earned you an Alumni Leadership Award.

A: My project was informing the public about forest destruction and habitat loss to palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia. I was a teen docent at the Oakland Zoo growing up and every weekend we set up stations at different exhibits to teach children and their parents about wildlife. When I learned about how deforestation was threatening populations of orangutans, tigers, sun bears, and many other species in Southeast Asia, I decided that I wanted to teach people about this problem. Palm oil plantations were one of the main causes of deforestation and many of our food and hygiene products contain palm oil. I set up a station that the docents would set up at the sun bear exhibit to teach people about palm oil plantations and deforestation. It also gave people advice about avoiding products with palm oil or choosing products that came from sustainable palm oil farms. The station was run at the Oakland Zoo for many years and now, much of the information has been put up as permanent signage at the exhibit.

Q: Thinking back on the process of designing and carrying out your project, are there aspects of that work that you find useful now as you're pursuing a Ph.D.?

A: Definitely! One of the biggest skills I gained was the confidence that I could complete a big project mostly on my own (but with some essential help from others). I learned how to take a big, complex project and break it down into steps, so it didn't seem quite so overwhelming. Graduate school is the exact same thing. It can be a bit scary and overwhelming to think about all of the work that has to get done before I finish my Ph.D., but as long as I work on it a little bit every day, I will get there eventually.

Q: What kind of guidance and support were most useful in implementing your project?

A: Having a mentor was very helpful in carrying out this project, who in this case was my Girl Scout troop leader at the time and my mother. She helped me sit down and think about all the steps that were required to finish the project, and then we broke them down into manageable steps that I could do one by one. It helped make this large, slightly daunting project into something I could achieve if I just stuck with it and continued working through the steps we set out. She also helped keep me motivated when things went wrong or I was losing focus, she encouraged me to keep going. I couldn't have done it without her!

Q: What advice can you give other young people about tackling a conservation need in their community?

A: Educating others about a conservation need is an important first step. Some great ways to start educating others are to:

  1. Talk to your friends and relatives, make informative posts on social media, and set up a booth at your local farmer's market.

  2. You may also find that a group is already working on tackling the issue, so volunteering to help out and raise awareness about the issue is also a good idea.

  3. Once you have informed people about the issue, think about a plan to solve the problem. Do you need to raise money to make a change? Maybe set up a letter-writing campaign to a local politician to enact change. Or is it something that everyone can pitch in and help out?

There are lots of passionate people out there who likely share your interests and would be willing to help out! Often, education and organization are the keys to success.

Q: What advice do you have for young people who are seeking mentors, internships, or other professional development opportunities?

A: Don't be afraid to ask. It can be intimidating to contact someone out of the blue and ask for an internship or another opportunity, but the worst response you can get is "No". Do some research first to find an individual or an organization that is doing work you would like to get involved with, then call or email them to tell them that you support their work and would like to get involved. The more you ask, the easier it gets and the more likely you are to find an opportunity!

Do you have your own idea to improve the planet? Follow Elise's advice and, "Don't be afraid to ask!" EPI's Alumni Leadership Award can help give your idea wings! Visit: to get started.



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