Undergrad Spotlight: Sarra Tekola

If you want to see fierce incarnate, just ask Sarra Tekola to recite one of her poems—particularly a recent piece about climate change—and see if you don’t get tingles. You can feel her passion burn through every word.

Sarra Tekola

Sarra Tekola has her hands in scores of activities around campus.

“I’ve been accused to being an environmental evangelist before,” says Tekola, a junior at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), “but you never want to be too overbearing. It’s important not to push people away. There’s a happy medium with not being so extreme, and if we want to do something about climate change, we need to include everyone. Because it isn’t just a political agenda. It’s a global issue that every single person on this Earth needs to become involved in and do something about.”

Poetry plays into Tekola’s desire to make science more accessible and accepted. She doesn’t want to be a scientist who mostly talks to other scientists; she wants to be actively connected to her community and the public. Even when we have an abundance of evidence—as with ocean acidification and climate change, she says—there’s often a disconnect when trying to galvanize the community to accept and act on the available science. “I want to be able to relate to people and help find solutions to climate change, to be able to persuade people and politicians, to convince them.”

With verse, she gets to practice her art of persuasion when she’s reading poems at an “open mic” night on campus, where she often addresses different audiences and perspectives. “I get to talk to people I might not meet at a restoration event or seminar,” she says.

Another of her tactics for fighting climate change denial is connecting collaborators. So far, she’s set up a Facebook page called “Climate Change Crisis Council,” and she hopes to grow the page into a forum where activists, scientists and environmentalists share ideas, opportunities for environmental involvement and research, and also build networks to find solutions for climate change. (If you’re interested in joining, it’s an open group, and you can contact Tekola via that page). Her plan is to build enough momentum to form a campus club that would get students involved in environmental research, work on public outreach and complete sustainability projects at UW through the Campus Sustainability Fund.

Sarra Tekola

One of Tekola’s projects is to mitigate run-off from a gravel road into a salmon stream near her parent’s home in Maple Valley.

Organizing the Climate Change Crisis Council is only the tip of the iceberg for Tekola’s campus activities. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking she cloned herself when you realize all the research projects she shoehorns into her schedule.

Tekola, whom you might see riding her motorcycle around campus (she drives it to reduce her carbon footprint; she gets 75 mpg!), was born in Seattle and grew up in nearby Maple Valley. She began her college career at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash., and transferred to the University of Washington (UW) to start her junior year this past fall. She’s now working toward a major in Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM), and she’s been sopping up the program’s research opportunities and field trips.

“I like that it’s really hands-on here,” she says. “I had taken a number of environmental courses, but most of them were textbook-based.” It’s one thing to learn about equipment in the classroom and interpret data others have recorded. “But going out in the field and using the equipment, and being able to do it with your own hands—that’s really fun.”

A few weeks ago, Tekola got her hands plenty cold and dirty in Yellowstone National Park as part of the annual spring course, “ESRM 459: Wildlife Conservation in Northwest Ecosystems.”

With a crew of three SEFS faculty members and 15 students, and using the northern Rockies as their staging ground, Tekola’s class explored patterns of corvid distribution, elk anti-predator behavior and wolf vigilance, among other research tasks. “It was awesome,” she says. “The Yellowstone trip is something I’d want to do on my own, and to be able to do it for school was really amazing. We got to see a lot of cool things.”

The “coolest,” she says, was when they got to watch—from a safe distance—a wolf pack attacking four bull elk. Three of the elk still had their antlers, but one didn’t, and the wolves had separated him from the others. One wolf ran out ahead and tried to bring down the elk, drawing blood on the run, and Tekola was sure the elk was going to fall. Yet the wounded bull stayed on its feet and staggered into the freezing Lamar River with two other elk, where the three lined up, rump to rump, staring at the wolves on the banks (the wolves wouldn’t enter the icy water, apparently, to avoid water freezing in their paws and injuring them; the warmer months are a different story). The fourth elk had turned to face the wolves, which feinted in and out at him, but the bull managed to ward them off with antlers brandished for about 20 minutes. The wolves ultimately gave up and retreated. It was an incredible display of survival tactics that worked—this time—and the class had front-row seats to the show.

Sarra Tekola

Tekola and other ESRM students investigate an elk kill site in Yellowstone National Park.

On another afternoon, they were heading out to investigate a recent wolf kill site. The elk carcass was only two days old, and Tekola remembers several students asking if they might be disturbing the site—or risk interrupting wolves at meal time. Their answer came right on cue: When they walked within 300 or 400 meters of the kill, a wolf was gnawing on the carcass, and binocular range was as close as they got to the carnage.

These field experiences have been a feast for Tekola, a research hound who’s been devouring every opportunity since she transferred from Green River Community College. “I always try to tell my friends and peers and people in the field what a great opportunity we have here at UW,” she says, “and how they should get involved in research as much as they can.”

Thanks to that hunger, her list of involvements is long and varied.

As part of Professor Tim Essington’s lab at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Tekola is studying hypoxia in the Hood Canal in Puget Sound. Her research includes seeing how fish are adapting to naturally occurring hypoxia. “It’s been a really fun project, especially dissecting stomachs and trying to identify the contents,” she says.

Tekola is also interning with Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, a nonprofit whose work impacts her hometown. The Cedar River forms in North Bend, eventually flows through Maple Valley and out into the bottom of Lake Washington in Renton. “I sometimes help them write grants or lead restoration projects,” says Tekola, and she especially enjoys sharing how the river contributes to the larger Lake Washington watershed, and also salmon spawning and habitat. “It’s my connection to the community.”

Sarra Tekola

“If time wasn’t such a limiting factor,” says Tekola, “I’d be involved in more stuff!”

For another project she’s spearheading close to home, Tekola recently scored a prestigious scholarship to help complete her research and final year at UW.

In Maple Valley, her parents live on a gravel hill in a rural area. Anytime it rains heavily, the run-off washes into a nearby salmon stream. Tekola’s plan is to create a rain garden to reduce the run-off and protect the stream, and in her spare moments she’s already started monitoring sediment and run-off in her test zone. But the project got a major boost recently when Tekola was awarded a one-year scholarship from the United Negro College Fund and the Merck Company Foundation for the 2013-14 academic year.

The 2013 UNCF-Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship Award will provide Tekola up to $30,000 in funding to cover her independent research expenses, a summer internship and tuition for her senior year. It’s big honor—one of only 15 nationally!—and helps ensure that Tekola can keep pursuing her many ideas and inspirations.

About the only thing slowing her down, in fact, is the turn of a minute hand.

“If time wasn’t such a limiting factor,” she says, “I’d be involved in more stuff!”

Photos of Sarra Tekola © Sarra Tekola; photo of elk kill site © Professor Aaron Wirsing/SEFS. 

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