Shaping tomorrow: Earth Futures Institute’s Frontier Fellows program amplifies student-led innovation

As it wraps up its second year, the innovative Frontier Fellows initiative—focused on preserving Earth’s future by funding undergraduate projects—reflects on the groundbreaking research accomplished by its awardees

From top left to bottom right: Jennifer Valadez, Gabriel Schiering, Cole Seither, Marcella Kolpin, Eric Vetha, and Hamilton Mikelonis (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

UC Santa Cruz’s Earth Futures Institute is amplifying the research of undergraduate students geared toward bettering the planet’s future. In its second year, EFI’s Frontier Fellows Program welcomed six undergraduate students—double the number of students from its inaugural year— to pursue groundbreaking interdisciplinary research. This year’s Fellows explored a variety of subjects including the viability of soil carbon stocks, the potential of agroforestry, and revolutionizing soil moisture management. 

Piloted in spring 2022 by Astrophysics and Astronomy Professor Emerita Sandra Faber, the Frontier Fellows program funds undergraduate research for a full year, giving students a unique career-building experience. Faber emphasized 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."

Frontier Fellows are awarded a summer training program stipend of $6,000 to pursue their research. 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 Fellow Jennifer Valadez (Crown ’24, environmental science), the stipend alleviated stresses surrounding income over the summer and freed up time to pursue her research interests. 

Valadez’s research focuses on carbon sequestration and soil carbon stocks in California coastal prairie. The overall goal: to inform restoration practices to optimize carbon sequestration within historically underestimated grassland ecosystems.

“If not for the summer program and the stipend, I would be working while trying to do the science, and would have had to find a balance between those,” Valadez said. “I still would have 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 be immersed in science.”

The Frontier Fellows program would not have been possible without the generosity of multiple donors including the Helen & Will Webster Foundation, Walter Loewenstern, Ellen Kimmel, and Catherine Hudson-Webb. Hudson-Webb, a Santa Cruz community member, said she was inspired by Faber’s commitment to combating climate change and supporting all biological systems on the planet. After hearing Faber speak about the Frontier Fellows program at a local learning group, Hudson-Webb knew she had to support the program in any way she could. 

“I am in despair about the future of our world, though I do what I can to reduce or reverse damage done in my own sphere—but I am just one person,” said Hudson-Webb during the program’s inaugural year. “I gather hope in knowing that young people can build upon the ever-evolving world of knowledge and that they may learn as well from our often colossal mistakes as we approach an uncertain future. I am inspired and grateful for the work being done by UCSC’s Frontier Fellows.” 

Frontier Fellow Cole Seither (Rachel Carson ’24, agroecology) is grateful to donors for contributing to programs that support students and give them a unique opportunity to gain real-world experience during their undergraduate education. 

“I don't have enough money to even think about philanthropic giving, but if I had the chance to give somebody a shot at a really strong upward swing out of their undergrad, I think that would be really gratifying,” Seither said.

Seither’s research focuses on agroforestry and its potential to aid in carbon sequestration for combating global climate change and improving livelihoods of local stakeholders predominantly in the global south.

Seither was intent on pursuing his senior thesis even before he heard about the Frontier Fellows program. The stipend award was the final push that encouraged him to apply.

“For me, the financial piece of it was more like a dangling carrot. That got me to pursue it. And then all of a sudden I was in it,” he said. “Now I’m realizing, this is probably the best thing that I'll do in my time at UC Santa Cruz.” 

Frontier Fellows provides students with the unique opportunity to pursue transformative and hands-on research experience outside of the classroom. For Eric Vetha (Rachel Carson ’24, robotics engineering), the program provided vital experience to pursue a career in robotics engineering. 

“Frontier Fellows is hands-on, real-world work—no textbooks,” said Vetha. “I'm delving into improving the soil moisture system practically, with trial and error, problem-solving, and application beyond the classroom grind.” 

Vetha’s research focuses on the advancement of wireless underground sensors to revolutionize soil moisture management in agriculture. Vetha says that by improving affordability and practicality, his work aims to democratize soil moisture monitoring, reduce water waste, and enhance crop yields.

Amplifying opportunity through philanthropy 

Philanthropic gifts to UCSC allow students to pursue ambitious projects, fostering innovation and career development. Donors play a crucial role in empowering the next generation of leaders, as their support allows students to engage in transformative research experiences that may reshape industries and advance societal progress. Philanthropic investment in Frontier Fellows directly contributes to the success and impact of the program, creating a pathway for students to explore uncharted territories and shape their academic and professional trajectories.

“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity made available by the generous donations to the Earth Futures Institute and the Frontier Fellows Program,” said Frontier Fellows student Gabriel Schiering (Oakes ’24, business management economics), whose project collaboration with the Oakes College Garden optimizes the model of a local, multi-source food waste composting system. 

“The innovation and problem-solving mentality embedded in Frontier Fellows positions us for lifelong success in developing proactive and scalable solutions to whatever problem we face,” Schiering said. “Simply put, if donors are aligned with investing in young people to lead us into a better and brighter future, then the EFI program deserves their utmost support.”

Funding for the Frontier Fellows program is made possible through the generosity of UC Santa Cruz’s supporters. For more information on how to support undergraduate research through Frontier Fellows, contact Branwyn Wagman.