The Rocky Mountains. The Colorado River. Some snowy hills for skiing and sandy deserts filled with dunes and cliff dwellings.
This can all be found in second-year Ball State graduate student Racheal Stenger’s home state of Colorado. However, her passion for nature did not spark there; instead, it grew from the time she and her family moved to Southern Indiana near Batesville when she was a teenager.
When she enrolled at Ball State, Stenger decided to major in general biology studies, later picking up a minor in sustainability. Although she enjoyed nature, she wasn’t fully enamored. Not until her sophomore year, when she joined the Ball State Field Station and continually immersed herself in the outdoors as a volunteer, did her enjoyment turn to passion.
She said her full-fledged love for biology and field work was cultivated when she met John Taylor, a land manager and restoration ecologist for the Field Station and Environmental Education Center.
Stenger’s mom refers to Taylor as “[Stenger’s] work dad.” Stenger has worked with him longer than any student ever has, and Taylor said their relationship takes on many different forms including supervisor, mentor, friend and even landlord, at Hults Farm in Albany, Indiana, a rental property Ball State owns, where Stenger lives.
“He's just one of those people that you walk around the woods with, and he'll be like, ‘Wait, what's that? What do you think that is?’ or he'll tell you what it is and it just makes it so much more interesting,” Stenger said. “It's kind of like following a park ranger around. When you see someone's passion, it makes you want to be passionate about it too.”
Taylor said he knew Stenger would have a future in biology when she went on a “BioBlitz,” a weekend going out with different field scientists, each of whom specialize in a certain area.
“She was on the plants team, and she wanted to know and identify all the plants we saw,” Taylor said. “When you start asking those kinds of questions, you're in it, you're not just pretending. You're really going in that direction. So I can tell when she was asking them questions like ‘How do you tell this from that?’ she's going to have a career in this field somehow.”
Steve Doll, a senior at Ball State, majoring in wildlife biology and conservation with a minor in natural resources, started with the Department of Biology in March 2021. Though he hasn’t worked with Taylor half as long as Stenger has, he still has a great relationship with his supervisor.
“I've said to my friends before, ‘I cannot ask for anybody better to work with,’” Doll said. “He's super respectful, he’s always willing to help, if we have questions he’ll answer them, and there are times where it's like, ‘I need a break just because everything else in my life is getting pretty hectic,’[and] he tells me, ‘It’s okay, no worries.’”
Doll is currently the president of the Wildlife Society at Ball State and is a Udall Scholarship recipient, an honor he said he was humbled to receive, as only a few students nationwide are selected for the award that focuses on “leadership, public service, and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment,” according to the Udall Foundation.
Taylor said he was drawn to Doll due to his hard working nature and how likable he is. He believes these are a couple of the reasons why Doll was able to win the Udall Scholarship and succeed in his department.
“I see this as the tip of the iceberg for Steve [Doll], I think he's gonna go on and do great things,” Taylor said. “It's encouraging for me because I know that we [the entire field station staff] play some part. We are managing collections of plants or properties and things like that, but our contact with the students is motivating. We have a real strong sense of why we come to work.”
Taylor, Stenger, Doll and others work year round for the Department of Biology. During the summer of 2022, much of their work was to remove “invasive species like honeysuckle and garlic mustard” and remove hazard Emerald trees left as a result of Emerald Ash Borers, an “invasive pest,” from ash trees in properties owned by Ball State, helping to ensure these areas are safe for the environment and the public.
“What I think is most impactful about it is giving other people an opportunity to be a part of nature, because a lot of the people I work with already want to help nature, and that's what we're doing, but in a way it's helping get other people involved” Doll said. “… Us preserving a few spaces is not gonna save nature or anything like that, but it is being a part of that bigger movement to help preserve what we still have.”
Doll and Stenger each aim to find a career in conservation, piggybacking off the work they’ve done while at Ball State.
“The thing about conservation is, you're preserving the land for future generations,” Stenger said. “It's kind of like money that you’re investing in the land. So, in the future, if we don't cut down the forest that right now we're trying to preserve, we're allowing for the future to be able to benefit from those forests.”
Stenger and Doll both said learning the little things, like recognizing these plants, species and trees, are valuable skills in setting up a rewarding future for themselves.
“I feel like I learn a lot, but my goal is to always keep learning and always keep taking new opportunities to grow,” Stenger said. “That's always been my mindset, and I think that's why I am where I am right now. So, for sure, continuing that idea of growth and learning, even if I'm a second year (graduate student) and I'm supposed to know what I'm doing.”
Despite the learning and professional growth Doll and Stenger have experienced during their time with the Department of Biology, the relationships forged are what Taylor will remember the most. Taylor said these positive relationships develop into positive results in their work.
Taylor said it's a joy to work with students who are eager to learn and care about the environment, such as Stenger and Doll. Though their work with the Department of Biology is not over yet, Stenger and Doll have left their physical mark on the environment at Ball State and, according to Taylor, a personal impact on the Department of Biology’s Field Staff.
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @smedley1932.