The ENVS Graduate Student Experience

Our graduate students come to us from all over the world, studying important and influential research topics in many fields bridging the social and natural sciences. Here are a few of our graduate students, discussing their experiences in the Environmental Studies Doctoral Program, and their research interests.

    Jon Detka

  • Jon Detka

    Doctoral research in Environmental Studies at UCSC has been an amazing opportunity for me to continue developing my ecological knowledge and analytical skills. The interdisciplinary nature of the ENVS program, and its diverse faculty, align perfectly with my interests in the management of emerging plant disease epidemics in native shrubland communities and the ornamental plant trade.

    As a graduate student in Dr. Gregory Gilbert’s Lab I am exploring the ecological and sociological dimensions of managing fungal pathogens. The ecological facet of my research aims to expand our understanding of complex interactions between coastal shrub hosts and endemic leaf fungal pathogens. I am interested in how host-pathogen interactions respond to changes in fog exposure and drought along the California coastline. The differential response of plant hosts and fungal pathogens to a changing climate may affect a communities’ resilience to disturbance and future distribution. The social facet of my research explores the role of the ornamental plant trade as a critical pathway for the introduction of invasive plant pathogens. I aim to model the influence of plant trade patterns on infectious plant disease and its impacts in native plant nurseries.


  • Andy Kulikowski

  • Andy KulikowskiMost tropical landscapes have experienced extensive deforestation resulting in mass extinctions and reductions in ecosystem services. In response, many countries have turned to forest restoration to ameliorate anthropogenic change in the tropics. While promising, the ability of forest restoration to deliver positive outcomes depends on a complex suite of ecological and social factors.

    Within long-term restoration plots in southern Costa Rica, my ecological research examines how deforestation at the landscape level affects insect herbivory and ant-plant mutualisms. There is strong evidence that insect herbivores and plant-protecting ants can affect plant biomass and diversity in tropical forests. Tropical insects are also sensitive to deforestation and thus, changes to insect communities/mutualisms due to forest loss could affect forest succession by altering patterns of plant mortality. This is particularly important in a restoration context as the goal of many restoration projects is to accelerate succession and quickly recover primary forest plant species.

    Concurrent with my ecological work, I am also investigating environmental policies that promote restoration by incentivizing private landholders. Specifically, I am examining unbalanced environmental outcomes in Costa Rica’s Payments for Environmental Services program due to complex, third-party governance. Through my broad-ranging dissertation work, I seek to highlight how understanding multi-level complexity in both ecosystems and policy is necessary when developing and implementing environmental interventions.

  • Chris Lang

  • No alternative textHi there! My name is Chris, and I am interested in environmental justice and sustainable consumer pathways. I focus on visions that build eco-social vitality in communities of color, looking at the possibilities of plant-based diets working in tandem with zero waste lifestyles on a collective, organized level. I operate from a cooperative economics and boycott framework, and work with community leaders passionate about shaping infrastructures and consumer pathways that reduce waste and improve health outcomes. While I aim to pollinate resources and ideas between the West (California) and South (Louisiana), I ultimately hope to examine broader political geographies of pollution and health as they relate to race, class, consumption, and deposition.

  • Anna Nisi

  • Anna NisiI study the local puma (Puma concolor) population, which exists in the fragmented and human-dominated landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The goal of my dissertation research is to use rigorous quantitative and statistical methods to understand how the human environment impacts puma movement and population dynamics, and hopefully produce useful insight for large carnivore conservation in urban-adjacent areas. Some examples of the questions I ask include: How do individuals balance trade-offs between sometimes conflicting goals (e.g., avoiding risky areas and moving efficiently through rugged terrain) as they navigate a heterogeneous landscape? How do characteristics of an animal’s home range impact its mortality risk, and is this mediated by individual-level factors, including variation in behavior or experience? How is this population changing over time, and what does this mean for longer-term population viability?

    While pumas are my main focus, I have other interests as well! My social science work is focused on land use policy, rural sprawl, and the relationship between development patterns in urban areas and their surrounding landscapes. I’m also involved in an undergraduate-focused small mammal trapping and monitoring study, which gives me the opportunity to hang out with undergrads and some cute Peromyscus species.

  • Pam Rittelmeyer

  • Pam RittelmeyerWe live in a time of increased risk imposed by the convergence of natural forces and human decisions. I am interested in how beliefs about natural hazards in a changing climate affect the ways that people depend on, modify, and adapt to the environment. More specifically, I want to better understand how people’s perception of natural hazards impacts their decision-making. I use qualitative, quantitative, and spatial analyses to study what influences perspectives. For my dissertation, I am studying the various narratives about the risk of flooding on the islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. I am seeking to illuminate the meanings behind people’s perceptions using interviews, media and document analysis, hydrological, and climate data. The broad range of academic expertise held by the faculty, post-docs, and students within the department provides the support that I need to accomplish complex research goals.

  • Rachel Shellabarger

  • Rachel ShellabargerI work in the Shennan Lab, where we study agricultural sustainability using participatory approaches in a wide variety of contexts. Specifically, I use my interdisciplinary background to research dairy production in California, an industry I am drawn to because I grew up dairying in the Midwest. California produces more milk than any other state in the U.S., and it has vastly different dairy production practices throughout its different regions. I draw on archives and interviews with dairy industry actors (mostly producers) to understand how the current landscape of California dairy production came to be, and where we can go from here given environmental policy priorities—like climate change mitigation and water conservation—in the state.
    Environmental communities and livestock producers often come into conflict, and I use my position as a member of both groups to try and bridge the divide that currently exists. I value bringing new perspectives like this into academic research because of my status as a first-generation student who often felt excluded during my early years in academia. Categories like first-generation status are often framed as disadvantages, but it is important to understand how these can also be advantageous and contribute new insights to a field. I’m grateful to have the support of students and faculty in the department to do this work.

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