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Bullitt Environmental Fellowship Awarded to WSU Graduate Student

PULLMAN, Wash.—Washington State University graduate student Erim Gomez has received a two-year, $50,000-per-year fellowship from the Bullitt Foundation of Seattle to complete field and laboratory studies on an endangered frog in the Moses Lake ecosystem.

The fellowship is granted to graduate students interested in pursuing leadership positions within the environmental field. The Bullitt Foundation supports the environmental work of nonprofit and educational institutions in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, western Montana and coastal Alaska.

Foundation President Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, noted that Gomez combined earlier undergraduate work in environmental studies with minors in economics and political science at Southern Oregon University in Ashland “because he sees the urgent need for connecting environmental policy and science.

“He believes scientists should be effective communicators with the public and policy makers, while understanding complex economic and political influences on environmental issues,” Hayes said. “He believes that the more lenses through which we can see the world, the better able we are to solve the pressing global environmental problems faced by society. Erim struck all the members of the selection committee as someone who is destined to play an important leadership role in environmental issues in the years ahead.”

A master’s student in WSU’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Gomez focused his graduate research on the behavioral ecology and conservation of amphibians in Palouse prairie wetlands of eastern Washington. The Coquille, Ore., native applied for the Bullitt Foundation fellowship so he can begin his WSU doctoral program on the state’s endangered northern leopard frog population in central Washington’s Moses Lake area. The fellowship will support Gomez’s spring 2012 fieldwork of collecting information on fish and frog populations as well as habitat. With the data, he will generate computer models to help produce conservation and management plans for the northern leopard frog.

“Amphibians are one of the most endangered vertebrate groups in the world, often being an indicator of overall environmental health of an ecosystem,” Gomez wrote in his application. “I am excited about conducting field research to help me evaluate and model a complex wetland ecosystem in Washington that harbors the last known population of the state’s endangered northern leopard frog. I might not be able to ‘save the world,’ but I would like to take a shot at saving one endangered species.”

The northern leopard frog, relatively abundant in the eastern United States, has all but disappeared from the western part of the country. Gomez is working to determine if the diminished populations stem from habitat loss or fragmentation; the introduction of such species as fish and bullfrogs, which feed on northern leopard tadpoles; or the presence of chytrid fungus, which attacks the frog’s distinctive spotted skin. Washington’s Moses Lake area has many wetlands, which Gomez attributes for the northern leopard frog’s continued presence there.

In addition to his research, Gomez is also recognized as an ardent supporter of science education for underrepresented students. Since 2009, he has served as an adviser to members of WSU MEChA, the Chicano student organization that promotes higher education. He also conducts environmental education programs on water quality, fish and amphibian ecology for youth and has taught in bilingual environmental education workshops. Gomez learned about the importance of education from his parents, both born in Mexico and both farm workers in the United States who didn’t attend college.

“I have never forgotten the day when I was in elementary school, when my father pointed to the nearby strawberry fields next to our house,” Gomez said. “He said to me in Spanish that he never had the opportunity to educate himself and that I should take advantage of my education. If I didn’t, I would be out there in the fields like him. These words have always motivated and guided me through my education and career goals.”

“Erim’s personal story and commitment to education is compelling, and he indeed serves as a sterling example of the kinds of future environmental leaders that WSU hopes to train,” said Rodney Sayler, Gomez’s adviser and an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences.

Gomez will accept his fellowship award during the fifth annual Priscilla Bullitt Collins Environmental Prize reception and dinner starting at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, at Seattle’s FareStart Restaurant, 700 Virginia Street.

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Media Contacts

Erim Gomez, Award Recipient, (509) 335-2221
Rodney Sayler, Wildlife Ecologist/Conservation Biologist, (509) 335-6167