She’s a hotshot: Sarah Whipple leads citizen science efforts

Sarah Whipple was among the CSU students who took part in the National Park Service’s bioblitz at Bandelier National Monument in May 2016. Video: Brian Buss/Colorado State University

Colorado State University junior Sarah Whipple wasn’t always a fan of bugs. But after going on her first bioblitz in 2015, she volunteered the next year to lead a team cataloguing insects at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

In a bioblitz, researchers, students and citizen scientists visit a national park and count as many species as possible in 24 hours.

“There were a ton of exotic insects and I really enjoyed it,” said Whipple, who is majoring in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.

She’s since become an expert on butterflies, bumblebees and similar flying creatures. Her favorite butterfly is the variegated fritillary, which is commonly found in the Rocky Mountains. “They’re pretty easy to identify, which is nice, especially if you’re working with citizen scientists,” she said.

Making connections, identifying insects

Whipple, from Lawrence, Kansas, said that through her research, she’s made lots of great connections not only at CSU but also at places like the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where she and other students sometimes get help identifying creatures such as spiders.

“I didn’t know a lot going into this line of research, but people trusted me, and I gained new skills,” she said. “I’ve been able to provide that opportunity for other students that didn’t have that knowledge before. It’s been really beneficial.”

She also found the field experience helpful in terms of her career goals. “You can learn from the field experiences, learn and adapt from them,” she said. “Going to all these bioblitzes has helped me grow as a leader and an ecologist.”

Whipple said she intends to apply for the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology at CSU after she completes her undergraduate work.

Expanding her wings

Gillian Bowser, research scientist at CSU, has served as a mentor to Whipple, and tapped her for 3dNaturalist and the Pollinator Hotshots. Bowser designed this project to introduce minority students to citizen science, community engagement and national parks by connecting them with big data projects through smartphone apps and other technological approaches.

The project will take Whipple to Yellowstone National Park this summer, while other student teams will head to Peru and England. She is also planning to help with a bioblitz later this year in North Cascades National Park in Washington State.

“We need to track pollinators; it’s even more important now,” said Whipple, citing news from earlier this year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species.

Camp Kesem comes to CSU

When she’s not training the next round of citizen scientists, Whipple will be organizing CSU’s chapter of Camp Kesem, a free summer camp for children whose lives have been touched by a parent’s cancer. She teamed up with freshman Katherine Brown, who is studying business, to submit an application. The two led a social media campaign to help garner enough votes to land the chapter.

“It’s a personal thing for Katherine and me, the fact we both had parents with cancer, they’re both survivors and we can share that story with kids,” said Whipple. “We know how much it can impact a kid and we just want to make it better for those who have to deal with that.”

CSU’s camp will be held in summer 2018, after more intense planning later this year, when Whipple and Brown will identify camp directors and counselors.

“Sarah is such a genuinely kind person who cares about others, so it was very enjoyable working with her on this camp because she was just as passionate as I was about getting a chapter started to help these kids,” Brown said.

Pollinators are important to people’s everyday lives, even when they don’t realize it, Whipple said. They affect the food supply, agriculture and help flowers bloom. “Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have honey or some plants that people rely on for food,” she explained.

Bandelier BioBlitz Sarah Whipple
CSU junior Sarah Whipple leads a team cataloguing insects at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

Her research work is not confined to the great outdoors. In August, she will present her research at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland, Oregon. Whipple took the lead on submitting two proposals for student-led teams; both were accepted, to her delight. “That’s uncommon, to have an undergraduate team presenting at a national conference,” she said.

Can’t imagine leaving

Whipple visited CSU when she was still in high school and was weighing where to go for college. She knew that she wanted to study environmental sciences, and really fell for the school after meeting professors in the Warner College of Natural Resources.

“I just love CSU,” she said, enthusiastically. “I love all the professors. I’ve met so many great friends and mentors. I love Fort Collins and Colorado. I couldn’t even imagine leaving this place.”

Whipple said Bowser is “one of the greatest people” she’s met at CSU. “She’s really inspired me to work hard, and to try my hardest to succeed. She’s the one who’s inspiring me to get my Ph.D., start my own research, teach and be a mentor for other students. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to thank her for that.”

Whipple is an Honors student and the recipient of a Presidential Scholarship. She has also received the Natt N. Dodge Scholarship in Natural Resources and the R.S. Knaub Science Award, which encourages innovation in sustainability, through the Warner College of Natural Resources. Whipple is also one of CSU’s four nominees for a Udall Scholarship, which is awarded to a junior or senior in fields related to the environment and to American Indians and Alaska Natives in fields related to health care and tribal public policy.