Shannon Westlake is a self-described “tree hugger” going back to her childhood growing up in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.
Today she’s interested in the connections between habitat management, species preservation and healthy food. After graduating from Green Mountain College’s Master of Science in Environmental Studies (MSES) program, she plans to pursue a doctoral fellowship at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.
Shannon completed her undergraduate degree in biology at SUNY Potsdam, and after graduation she moved back to home to work as a research supervisor for Corning, Inc. “I enjoyed the job but felt separated from nature and I wanted to rekindle that connection,” she said.
When she began her search for graduate programs in biology and environmental studies, she read about the MSES program and realized she could continue her education online without giving up her job.
“The favorite thing for me about the GMC program is the bioregional approach. I did my thesis work in the area where I grew up, but the project gave me a whole new understanding of the place I’d called home for 26 years.”
Working with an Auburn, N.Y. non-profit, the Booker T. Washington Community Center, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from nearby Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, she developed a project called Project Pollinator which centered around planting a pollinator garden (shaped like a butterfly) and an adjoining food garden.
Shannon explains that much of the food we eat—about one-third of our food plants—depend on bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators. “Having a healthy ecosystem means fostering plants that support local pollinators. For instance, monarch butterfly larva feed on milkweed plants exclusively, so we planted milkweed to encourage this pollinator species.”
Shannon operated as a sort of interdisciplinary cross-pollinator herself, helping children and local citizens understand the connection between vibrant habitat, species protection and nutrition.
“I don’t have a green thumb so all of this was a learning experience for me. But I fell in love with the idea of connecting humans to nature and conservation.”