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UC Merced, Yosemite work together

YOSEMITE — One of UC Merced's selling points is its proximity to Yosemite National Park. Not only can students make the short trip to hike, swim, climb, camp and bike in the park, they can participate in two university partnerships with Yosemite.

The Yosemite Leadership Program is an internship for 11 University of California at Merced undergrads in which they live in the park for two months over the summer and complete a "legacy project."

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates program matches students with Yosemite scientists and UC Merced professors; eight students from across the nation spend the summer in Yosemite completing research projects.

The programs give students hands-on research and leadership experience in a beautiful setting. California State University, Stanislaus, senior Timothy Holling studied stream water in his pursuit to be a hydrologist and gave park officials information and tools they haven't had. Examples include informative videos for park visitors or a database on the park's meadows.

For many students, this is their first time at Yosemite.

Although park officials could not be reached, students and professors recently shared their experiences with The Bee:

Yosemite Leadership Program

In its third year, the YLP is a two-year program that combines courses with fieldwork. Students attend classes their first year and work on a project the second year. Students stay in Yosemite's Wawona Grove over the summer in five cabins owned by the park but maintained by the university.

"They're working on a science project that will have direct, immediate impacts," said Eric Berlow, coordinator of the YLP. "The curriculum in the program is what makes YLP stand out from other Yosemite volunteer programs."

Sydney Montroy, a UC Merced applied math senior, joined the YLP because she wants to work as a wilderness ranger. She made a film and posters about the do's and don'ts of pooping and littering in the woods.

"I wanted to develop an effective visual aid for the park," said the 21-year-old Fremont native.

Montroy enjoyed working with other students and called them "a huge family."

"We've also been exposed to the insides of how a national park works and how it's run," she said.

Andrés Estrada, 22, was impressed with the park's vastness. "There's so much more to it than Yosemite Valley. It's a great place to learn about Native American history and man's interaction with wilderness. It's a truly wild place. It's a good place to learn about yourself."

Estrada is an ecology and evolution senior at UC Merced. He spent his summer working with Yosemite's search and rescue team, patrolling Mist Trail up to Half Dome and responding to reports of lost people or medical emergencies. He helped escort nearly 45 hikers down Half Dome after a man fell to his death June 13.

"I learned how to run a rescue effectively. I saw the coordination and cooperation between the people climbing and the people harnessing them," the Northridge native said. "It was very businesslike with a human element. I saw what a good leader does — facilitating work between people."

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

In its second year, the program is funded by a National Science Foundation grant aimed at connecting student research and the wilderness. There are hundreds of these programs across the United States, some of them 20 years old.

The NSF encourages minority student involvement. More than 150 people submitted applications for eight spots. Four of this year's students are from Central Valley schools: UC Merced; Modesto Junior College; CSU, Stanislaus; and CSU, Fresno. The others are from Miami Dade College, Kansas State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina. Students get a $500-a-week stipend and the program pays for housing in five Yosemite cabins.

Projects focus on science, ranging from ecology to geosciences to engineering. Students attend seminars and field trips.

"Students are exposed to very intense research experiences for two months. If they're thinking about graduate school, they'll be able to tell if they like research," said Benoit Dayrat, REU coordinator. "It also allows us to show them research is interesting and pays well and is rewarding."

Holling, the CSUS chemistry and geology senior, has spent the summer studying one of Yosemite's creeks and the elements in the water.

"I've learned about the techniques used out in the field and dealing with people from other backgrounds," said Holling, 27. "We're also learning to do professional-level presentations."

Holling hopes to become a hydrologist studying ground and surface water. He'll probably get a master's degree or doctorate.

Renee Smith, 22, is torn between working in a national park and doing something in environmental policy. She signed up for the REU after finishing the YLP.

Her research project centers on studying the stress that creek plants undergo during the seasons and trying to measure how such factors as climate change affect plants. She measures plant water at 2 a.m. and noon at eight sites.

"I get to see the sun rise," said Smith, who's a senior majoring in earth systems science at UC Merced. "It's been great to appreciate nature in a new way. I've learned a lot of how the park works and park management."

What's up next for Smith? Grad school or law school.

"This has changed my life," she said about the YLP and REU programs. "I would have never ever thought about working in the park service."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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