Aug 31, 2017
For Humboldt State Environmental Science and Management graduate student Irene Vasquez, who was recently awarded the prestigious Switzer Fellowship for environmental scholars, her studies couldn’t have come more naturally.
Vasquez will spend the next few years researching tule, a relatively common wetland rush, recognizable to many for its tall, sturdy, green stems. Tule’s also recognizable for its widespread use in Native American baskets and other materials. It’s this intersection of culture and nature that intrigues Vasquez, who’s Miwok and Paiute.
“I was always drawn to baskets,” she says. “They’re important to our culture – and not enough people my age are learning the skills to make them.”
Vasquez, whose first job at age 15 was working with cultural artifacts in the Yosemite Museum, says it’s been a lifelong goal of hers to revitalize basket making and teach it to her relatives. Crucial to the art of basket making, of course, are the materials they’re woven from. Tule is plentiful, but fungus and other issues in today’s tule populations make for less than ideal for weaving.
So she will study how prescribed burns and other restoration and management techniques affect tule health, focusing on areas in and around Yosemite National Park. She’ll also monitor the effects of prescribed burn studies in other wetland areas, and interview basket weavers about cultural history, uses of tule, and how plant populations were historically maintained.
Vasquez is excited to work on a plant that has been so important to Native cultures and California wildlife. Prescribed burns in the Colusa and Sacramento national wildlife refuges are being done to improve seeds and the structural integrity of tule for birds that use the rushes to build nests. She sees a parallel between those nests and the baskets of her ancestors that she wants to preserve.
The combination of social and physical sciences caught the eyes of the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation, Vasquez says. Since graduating from University of California Santa Cruz in 2009, she’s been doing restoration work in Yosemite on functioning ecosystems as well as trails and camps. She’s known for a while she wanted to restore plants for cultural as well as ecological reasons. “The Switzer fellowship was a big sigh of relief – it gave me the confidence to keep working and applying for help.”
Vasquez will be studying under the guidance of Environmental Science and Management Chair and Professor Steve Martin, whose work focuses on the interactions between humans and nature.
Vasquez’s achievement marks the third year in a row an HSU graduate student has been awarded a Switzer Fellowship. In 2016, Keith Parker’s studies on the conservation genetics of the Pacific Lamprey earned him the award. Read more about that here. Anthony Barela Nystrom was awarded the Switzer Fellowship in 2015 for his work on fire ecology with the Yurok Tribe.
Each year, 20 promising environmental leaders are awarded $15,000 each to complete master’s and doctoral degrees in New England and California to advance their skills and develop their expertise to address critical environmental challenges. Nearly $15 million in grants has been invested in Switzer Fellows over the past 30 years. The Switzer Foundation identifies, supports, and nurtures emerging environmental leaders through academic funding, leadership training, and preparation for policy impact.
This story was originally published on June 13, 2017