Geology Student, Warriors of the Wild Founder Named Udall Scholar

Geology Student, Warriors of the Wild Founder Named Udall Scholar
Passion for Environmental Conservation Earns Vanessa Alejandro First-Ever Udall Scholarship for UH

AlejandroWith a deep love of nature and a passion for animal and environmental conservation, college sophomore Vanessa Alejandro has been chosen as the first-ever Udall Scholarship winner from the University of Houston.

Selected from a pool of 489 applicants from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Alejandro is one of only nine sophomores honored this year. The Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation awards 50 scholarships nationally to college students at the sophomore and junior levels throughout the nation who are committed to careers related to the environment, tribal public policy or Native American health care.

A geology major in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Alejandro was among the students chosen in the environmental category for her leadership potential, academic achievement, record of public service and commitment to pursuing a career in the environment. She will receive a $5,000 scholarship to use for her junior and senior years and will have an opportunity to meet policymakers and community leaders in the environmental field when she receives her award at the Udall Scholar Orientation Aug. 6-10 in Tucson, Arizona.

“I was inspired by nature to pursue a scientific career, and I want to spark that same curiosity in younger students,” said Alejandro, who is also a member of The Honors College at UH. “Not every student will be captivated, but it could change the lives of the ones who are. I want to motivate as many children as possible, just like my science teacher in elementary school inspired me.” 

From this passion, Warriors of the Wild was born.

Educating Houston-area children on environmental and animal conservation through interactive presentations and outdoor field trips, Warriors of the Wild is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization (in review by the IRS) that Alejandro founded in 2012 with Connor Jacobson, a junior at Texas A&M University studying zoology. As president and vice president, respectively, Alejandro and Jacobson run this organization together, sharing a passion for educating youth about the environment through free educational programs, spending time outdoors and empowerment. 

Alejandro describes a particularly rewarding experience through Warriors of the Wild with an elementary school they visited to play a game called ‘Bug Hunt,’ splitting students into teams for a contest of who could find the most interesting bug. At first, the children couldn’t find anything, but with some redirection from the ‘warriors,’ they were surprised at what they found, spurring a flurry of questions and interest from the students. 

“It was amazing to be able to transform the playground they see every day into a completely different world and show this magical world full of insects to these kids,” Alejandro said. “One of our goals with Warriors of the Wild is to teach children they are part of something bigger. They are part of a global ecosystem full of incredible plants and animals. That day at Briargrove Elementary, I was able to see a common landscape – the playground – transform right before their eyes. Experiences like this push me to keep on doing Warriors of the Wild.” 

AlejandroVery active in undergraduate research, Alejandro works with assistant professor Julia Wellner in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Currently, she is working with Wellner and graduate student Alicia Staszyc on understanding glacial sediment transport and the formation of the mineral ikaite, which forms in only a few places around the world, such as offshore the Antarctic Peninsula. To better understand this unusual mineral, they are studying various details and mechanisms that may correlate with different times of growth that will allow them to examine which factors control its formation. In addition to this basic research, Alejandro is interested in sustainability and applied science research. 

“Last July, I led a research project through Warriors of the Wild that focused on renewable energy. We wanted to create something that would allow people in underdeveloped countries to have electricity,” Alejandro said. “We designed a virtual playground that harnesses energy from the playground equipment and solar power energy from the roof. This energy would be stored in removable batteries that can be inserted into lamps, which would allow kids to study at night and give families a way to have light in general. I’m very interested in how I can apply scientific principles to real world problems.” 

Upon graduation, Alejandro plans to join the Peace Corps and, ultimately, pursue a Ph.D. in geology. Her impetus for doing this is her desire to improve the standard of living for people in developing and underdeveloped countries through good energy practices. 

“I want my sustainability research to be geared toward these regions, because I want to help better the lives of these people with good sustainable practices,” Alejandro said. “In order to properly understand the issues being faced in these areas, I need to experience them firsthand. This is why I want to join the Peace Corps. I need the experience to ensure that my efforts will be geared in the right direction and to know what it is that people really need.” 

Ultimately, Alejandro plans a career in academia, investigating sustainability, such as creating programs to harness energy effectively, and leading educational initiatives pertaining to global environmental concerns. One goal is to work with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which is a voice for the environment that acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment. Through UNEP, she would like to create an educational program to inspire those children for whom environmental issues are not top of mind. She also plans to continue expanding the work of Warriors of the Wild in and around Houston.

- Lisa Merkl, University Communication