Diverse campus landscapes are ideal outdoor laboratories—and classrooms

The campus's diverse landscapes host a range of scientific projects and offer undergraduates countless opportunities for hands-on learning.
Photo of Elizabeth Davis tending seedlings
Plant scientists rely on greenhouses on the roof of the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building to raise seedlings, like these being tended by recent graduate Elizabeth Davis.
Photo of Ingrid Parker and Elizabeth Davis
After graduation, Davis landed a job as a lab tech in the lab of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Ingrid Parker, left, in part because of the rich hands-on, field-learning opportunities she enjoyed on campus lands. Also pictured is Zach Shearin, a graduate student in Parker's lab. (Photos above by Carolyn Lagattuta)
Elizabeth Davis transplants seedlings at Younger Lagoon Reserve

Hands-on learning is educational--and fun! A little rain didn't keep Davis and student employee Taylor Ramos from transplanting native seedlings at Younger Lagoon Reserve, part of the diverse tapestry of campus landscapes that suppport scientific research and the student experience at UC Santa Cruz. (Photo courtesy Younger Lagoon Reserve)


UC Santa Cruz is known for its beautiful landscapes, but its meadows, forests, farm fields, and coastal bluffs also support a range of scientific research and hands-on learning opportunities for students.

Elizabeth Davis, who graduated from Merrill College in March, took advantage of everything the campus has to offer as a "living laboratory," getting a range of hands-on experiences that complemented the rigorous "book learning" of her ecology and evolutionary biology major. Learning in the outdoor classrooms of UC Santa Cruz helped Davis build an impressive network of faculty and staff mentors, and it gave her the skills to land a job managing a large research project on the campus right after graduation.

"I learned so much from working with faculty, staff, and graduate students in non-classroom settings," said Davis.

Students in virtually every discipline from the arts to engineering take advantage of the campus's physical resources to support their educational experience. In Davis's case, to say she "did it all" wouldn't be much of an overstatement. She participated in field research at the UCSC Farm, documenting disease transfer among plants; she practiced restoration ecology on the UC Natural Reserve at Younger Lagoon, where she planted native plants and restored coastal bluffs; she learned plant propagation and nurtured seedlings in the UCSC Greenhouses and traced the path of pathogens after her wards were set out on a sprawling campus meadow; and she donned head-to-toe coveralls, gloves, and eye protection to tromp through poison oak-covered hillsides of the Campus Natural Reserve as part of an ongoing forest-inventory project.

Davis picked up countless valuable skills, from mammal trapping and bird surveys to trail work. By the time she enrolled in an upper-division botany class, she already knew a lot of local plants.

"I would've learned so much less without these experiences," said Davis. "It became core to my college experience. I felt like what I was learning in school complemented what I was learning in the field."

Research that matters

Campus lands support a range of federally funded research, and UC Santa Cruz undergraduates often play significant roles at every stage of a project. Davis knew she wanted to study ecology, and she chose Santa Cruz in part for the research opportunities and internships available to students.

"When I was looking for a college, I thought there was no way I'd find a place with everything I want," she said. "My mom encouraged me to look at UC Santa Cruz. My uncle went here. When I got in, I came and looked, and it had everything I was looking for in a college. With the ocean, forest, and meadows, there was so much for me to learn in the field I wanted to go into."

To Greg Gilbert, a professor of environmental studies who utilizes campus lands and greenhouse facilities for interdisciplinary research on plant disease, the campus really is a living laboratory.

"It's so much more than just a beautiful place," he said. "It's home to cutting-edge research, experiential learning, and so many cross-divisional projects. The campus hosts millions of dollars of government-funded research outside of the laboratories and buildings we usually think of as where research happens."

Down on the Farm

The 30-acre UC Santa Cruz Farm is the hub of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). It is one of the most familiar and visible sites of research, including an NSF-funded investigation co-led by Gilbert and Ingrid Parker, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. They are investigating how disease spreads among species of cover crops that are used to enhance soil fertility in organic agricultural systems, and they rely heavily on undergraduate collaborators.

"We want to know what is the most effective way to use cover crops without spreading more disease," explained Davis, who helped plant different types of grasses, legumes, and mustards that are used as cover crops. She and her teammates plotted out the research site, monitored plant growth, harvested the crops, and then headed to the lab where they documented the presence and extent of disease, extracted the DNA of pathogenic fungi, and weighed the dry biomass of the plants. "I was part of all the steps," said Davis.

From greenhouse to meadow

Davis played a key role in another offshoot of that study that is looking at the potential for disease to spread in campus meadows between plant species that are introduced from distant places to native plants—movement that can have catastrophic consequences.

Davis helped track "pathogen spillover" among plants, mostly grasses and legumes. Started in campus greenhouses, the plants were relocated to the meadow in pots, where researchers are monitoring the diseases they catch from their relatives. "We want to know what pathogens are in the meadow and how related, non-native plants respond," she said.

These projects are part of a major interdisciplinary undertaking begun several years ago by Gilbert and Parker. Understanding how disease moves among species has implications for biodiversity, disease-control strategies, and commercial undertakings.

"Sudden Oak Death is decimating California's coastal oaks," said Gilbert. "That disease was brought to California through the nursery trade when they imported infected rhododendrons from Europe. That's why these studies matter. If the USDA approves a plant for import, and it unexpectedly brings in a hitchhiking pathogen, can we predict what kind of impacts that might have on local plant communities? These studies help us get those answers."

Restoring Younger Lagoon Reserve

Virtually every nook and cranny of campus has seen research and/or hands-on learning action. One of the most heavily utilized spaces is on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, just a few miles from the main campus. After being commercially farmed for decades, Younger Lagoon Reserve is now a protected area that spans beach, wetlands, grasslands, and coastal scrub. For years, student interns have tended the lands to restore the landscape and protect birds, mammals, and other residents.

Davis, like legions of students before her, enjoyed the physical work of weeding, transplanting seedlings, and collecting seeds.

"It's very hands on, and I felt like I was really making a difference for the local environment," said Davis, who spent three quarters interning and volunteering before spending a year as a student employee.

"I learned a lot," she said. "The reserve managers really try to build your skills: small mammal trapping, bird surveys, trail work, non-native plant management, planting native plant species. There was a lot to learn. That's why I stuck around."

"We're trying to mimic what's happening in nature," she added, rattling off an impressive list of native plants that are thriving on the reserve: coffeeberry, bee plant, sage, lizard tail, yarrow, California aster, blue-eyed grass, gumweed, juncus. "Restoration can be really effective." 

Continuous Forest Inventory

In addition to Younger Lagoon, UC Santa Cruz oversees natural reserves at Año Nuevo, Big Creek, Fort Ord, and on upper campus, where about 400 acres has been set aside as the Campus Natural Reserve. An additional 1,000 acres of the main campus have been designated resource or protected lands, greatly expanding the number of sites available for research projects and ecological monitoring.

Not many people get to hike off trails with permission. But that's what Davis did as an intern working on the Continuous Forest Inventory (CFI) on upper campus. This year-round monitoring project sends crews of interns into the Campus Natural Reserve to survey plants, tag and record woody species, examine duff and fallen leaves, calculate heights of trees, and plot plant locations.

In addition to the CFI, about 40 undergraduates are currently engaged with the 40-acre Forest Ecology Research Plot (FERP), located on the Campus Natural Reserve. Since 2007, student interns and assistants have documented the health of the forest and conducted research on the site, which is now part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Forest Global Earth Observatory Network.

"The Smithsonian collaboration upped the stakes, because our data are now part of a global monitoring effort," said Gilbert. "We follow their standardized protocols. It speaks to another aspect of the value of these campus spaces."

The FERP site, which Gilbert established in 2007, is also part of the $800,000 NSF grant he and Parker received to study pathogens on the Farm and the Great Meadow. "The grant was only possible because UC Santa Cruz has the combined resources of the greenhouses, the Farm, the Campus Natural Reserve, and other protected natural lands," he said. "All of them play key, complementary roles that make the work possible."  

Faculty-led research and student learning go hand in hand on campus, where thousands of students have benefited from the campus natural reserves. More than 75 courses utilize the reserves every year, and more than 150 students become interns each year.

As the administrative director of UC Santa Cruz Natural Reserves, Gage Dayton keeps tabs on what students get out of their experiences on the designated lands. "They tell me it's invaluable," said Dayton. "And we know it influences their futures."

One survey of UC Santa Cruz graduates who participated in field study revealed that more than 65 percent said the experience dramatically impacted their career choices. Another survey found that graduates of field courses who'd found work in a relevant scientific field were more likely to have a job in their discipline than those who hadn't—suggesting that field courses and internships provide valuable skills and experiences that help students obtain careers in their field of study. Surveys also indicate that students who participated in these activities were more likely to go to graduate school, according to Dayton. 

Living and learning

Davis arrived on campus knowing she wanted to study ecology and pursue internships and research opportunities ("I had a really good AP biology teacher in high school in Orange County," she said). One benefit she didn't anticipate was the living-and-learning opportunity she had as a sophomore, when she joined UCSC's Program in Community and Agroecology (PICA), a residential program in the Lower Quarry near the Farm.

Davis began as a volunteer coordinator of the community garden, a focal point of this unique program where 36 undergraduates grow their own fruits and vegetables, cook collectively, and share meals several times a week. After one quarter, Davis moved into a paid position that she kept through the school year and summer. Organizing work days, plantings, and harvests was a good fit for an energetic, outgoing self-starter.

It came naturally for Davis to reach out in search of internships and enriching extracurricular opportunities, but she recognizes that other students find it difficult to "put themselves out there." Her advice is to monitor departmental websites, look for announcements, and consider teaching assistants as an entry point for getting to know graduate students—who often hold the key to research opportunities, because they need help. 

Seeking the rigorous academic path

Never one to shy away from rigor, Davis enrolled in a demanding new systemwide class last spring. Based on a course that was first taught at UC Santa Cruz and is now administered by the campus, "California Ecology and Conservation" uses UC's systemwide natural reserves as the classroom for seven weeks. Davis was one of 27 students from across the UC system who traveled around the state and engaged in weekly independent research projects.

"You have to form your question, strategize how to get the answer, collect data, analyze your findings, write, and present," she recalled. The workload was demanding—but rewarding.

Davis also opted to write a thesis, which isn't required for her major. "It's an extra step," she said. "It's good for graduate school, and it felt really important to me. I didn't want to miss out on any aspect of learning." Davis recently won a 2018 Dean's Undergraduate Award for outstanding achievements in her major and for her thesis. The dean's awards recognize high-caliber undergraduate research that is often both groundbreaking and interdisciplinary.

Davis wrote her thesis about research she conducted in campus greenhouses, where she studied plant-soil feedbacks in Scotch broom, an invasive flowering shrub. Not coincidentally, Davis's path to that project started at Younger Lagoon, where she met a lab technician working in Ingrid Parker's lab. That connection ultimately led to Davis landing the opportunity to participate in the Scotch broom study under Parker's supervision.

Along with everything else she has learned, Davis has learned to interact with professors and graduate researchers as colleagues and collaborators.

"When you get to know them outside the classroom, they look out for you," she said. "They'd come to me and say, 'Hey, would you be interested in this opportunity?' They're invested in you and want you to do well. I feel like I have a really huge network here."

As a freshly minted college graduate, Davis is landing on her feet with a five-month, full-time appointment as a lab tech in Parker and Gilbert's lab. They could not be more delighted to have her join them as a professional colleague.

"Elizabeth, more than anyone else, is making everything run—the Farm project, the meadow work, the lab. She's on top of it all," said Parker. "She is the quintessential UC Santa Cruz student."