Kara Powell


Kara Powell | Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution | Class of 2018

You were the first founder of Sierra Club at UCSD. Could you talk about that experience?

I’ve been involved with the Sierra Club for a long time off-campus, and when I first came to UC San Diego I found it odd that there wasn’t an on-campus chapter. The San Diego Sierra Club was looking to welcome more diversity to their member base, especially younger members. Unfortunately, it is time-consuming to take public transportation to the San Diego Sierra Club Chapter meetings, and most college students are faced with a busy schedule and not owning a car. I decided to rally a few of my dedicated, environmentally-conscious friends to create a Sierra Club Chapter on campus that could connect the students at UC San Diego to the campaigns that the San Diego Chapter works on. Our main focus as we gain momentum as a club is trying to establish Community Choice Energy. This is a campaign that the Student Sustainability Collective has also been involved in, and it is a great opportunity for students to gain experience participating in political discussions and processes. We have organized public meetings with San Diego Councilmembers that were meant to inform both the council and the public about the harm caused by an electrical provider monopoly, which is what currently exists with SDG&ESEMPRA, the corporation behind SDG&E, has the power to control prices of our energy and decide where the energy comes from, often supporting fossil fuel use when renewable technology is ready for us to take advantage of. Community Choice Energy seeks to place that decisive power in the hands of elected city officials, who are more likely to listen to the people of San Diego, instead of corporate executives. In the future, I hope to expand the club and continue to regularly hold nature outings in order to provide students with the opportunity to experience the outdoors if they otherwise are unable to.

This campaign has been an amazing experience, and it has taught us about the way the government is run in San Diego and the influence that a group of people can have if they educate and organize themselves to take action. Especially in the wake of Trump’s election, it has inspired students to be more involved and to voice their opinions on political issues. It has shown them that making a difference is possible and given us hope that we can change the status quo.

As I was working for the Sierra Club, I continued to stay involved in several other sustainability organizations on campus. It is common for multiple groups to have similar interests and goals, and I was involved in trying to organize clubs into cooperative events and campaigns. The Inter-Sustainability Council at UC San Diego is a great resource for people involved in sustainability. I attended their meetings and was able to connect members from CALPIRG, who were running a “Save the Bees” campaign, to members of Roger’s Garden in Revelle College. Roger’s Garden needed help maintaining their native plant garden, and was hoping to develop it into an educational resource for people to learn more about drought-tolerant landscaping and native pollinator sanctuaries. Every week members from the Sierra Club, CALPIRG, and Roger’s would meet up and collaborate on this project. I enjoy staying involved with multiple clubs on campus so I can continue to meet new people and create collaborations like the Native Plant Garden at Roger’s. Working together is important for any movement, especially for sustainability.

Could you talk about your work at the Ruth Bancroft Garden and how drought-tolerant gardening practices are implemented?

I’ve been involved with sustainability since high school, when my part-time job was at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. Ruth Bancroft was a cacti and succulent enthusiast with a large amount of land. She created a beautiful collection of these plants and opened it to the public. The Garden uses the landscaping to teach visitors about the importance of water conservation and habitat protection. Frequent workshops are held that show participants how to turn their stereotypical, water-sucking, ecologically useless American lawn into a diverse array of drought-tolerant native plants that support wildlife and save on water bills. There are many ways to make your lawn more sustainable, especially by establishing native plants. Plants native to California are already adapted to a lack of water, and they are able to consume less water than grass and still be aesthetically pleasing. Native plants are also already a part of the local ecosystem, and they provide food and shelter for wildlife that typical lawn grass cannot. If the majority of suburban households replaced their lawns with drought-tolerant native landscaping, it would create a network of habitat fragments that could support populations of wildlife that provide us with useful services (such as crop pollination). The experience of working at the garden inspired me to learn more ways that I could make a difference and eventually led me to become an Ecology major at UC San Diego.

I was particularly interested in the protection of native wildlife, and during my time at UC San Diego, I started to focus on native pollinators and the important services they provide us. I began working in the Holway lab during my first year, studying the effects of habitat fragmentation on pollinator abundance and efficiency (a project led by James Hung). My work on plant-pollinator interactions continued through my time at UC San Diego.

What did you do while working at the San Diego Zoo Institute For Conservation Research and could you talk about the importance of conservation/ methods used to help endangered species?

In the summer of 2017, I received a fellowship to conduct research at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. The San Diego Zoo emphasizes the importance of conservation through habitat protection and endangered species protection, and the Institute is heavily involved in conservation research and education. I worked with the Plant Conservation team and the Center for Plant Conservation Research to develop a shiny app that focuses on plant-pollinator interactions. Pollination is an important ecosystem service, providing one out of every three bites of food that we consume. Native pollinators are also vital components of ecosystems, allowing plant diversity to flourish and support the food chain. The shiny app that I developed with the help of Katherine Heineman analyzes these plant-pollinator interactions and educates site visitors about pollinator conservation. I had an amazing experience at the San Diego Zoo and I gained many skills that have helped me in my later projects.


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