Frontier Fellows Program propels student's research, paving the way for sustainable solutions to carbon emissions

Jennifer Valadez nears thesis finish line with Frontier Fellows support in carbon sequestration research

Jennifer Valadez (Crown ’24, environmental science)

Jennifer Valadez (Crown ’24, environmental science) was always inspired to pursue a senior thesis at UC Santa Cruz. Now, in her final two quarters, Valadez is nearing the finish line on her research to better the Earth’s atmosphere.

Valadez’s research focuses on carbon sequestration and soil carbon stocks in California coastal prairie as a sustainable solution to rising carbon emissions in the atmosphere. The project assesses the carbon sequestration potential in California coastal prairie, a historically underestimated grassland ecosystem, and the role of restoration in the recovery of carbon stocks to support nature-based climate solutions. Valadez’s research is conducted at Younger Lagoon Reserve, utilizing both restored and unrestored prairie.

Valadez’s research was able to reach its fullest potential with the help of Earth Futures Institute’s Frontier Fellows Program

Piloted in spring 2022, the Frontier Fellows program funds undergraduate research for a full year, giving students a unique career-building experience. Frontier Fellows are awarded a summer training program stipend of $6000 to pursue their research, thanks to the support of multiple donors. For these students, a summer stipend allows them to focus fully on their research, rather than needing to take on a job to pay their bills. 

For Valadez, the stipend alleviated stresses surrounding income over the summer, and freed up time to pursue her research interests. 

“If I wasn't in the summer program and got that stipend, I would be working while trying to do the science and would have had to find a balance between those,” Valadez said. “I would have still done it, but I don’t think I would have been as involved as I got to be in my research. So it’s a great opportunity for students. I didn't have a lot of science programs growing up, so this was a way for me to live that life of being involved in science.”

The Frontier Fellows program was piloted by Astrophysics and Astronomy Professor Emerita Sandra Faber, who emphasizes the importance of funding and supporting undergraduate research opportunities. 

"Engaging in research is a transformative journey within education," Faber expressed. "The Frontier Fellows program uniquely empowers undergraduates to lead impactful research endeavors, providing not only inspiration but also crucial funding and mentorship. Graduates from the Frontier Fellows program emerge well-prepared for success in their chosen fields long after their college years."

Valadez credits the Frontier Fellows program for bettering her time management skills, providing her with priceless connections with faculty, and enabling her to pursue and finish her senior thesis. 

“It's completely hands on,” she said. “It's a project that you get to build up and conduct with the Frontier Fellows Program as a support system. It's really individual and you get to immerse yourself in the science. The program gave me a lot of time to really think about large ideas, tackle them, and explore all of it fully.”

After graduating in the Spring, Valadez hopes to explore a career in resource management.