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Volume 30, No. 3

Polk Internships Help Students Find their Path, Purpose, and Passion

Inspiring future generations of environmental stewards through hands-on conservation. 

Baylee Christensen during her time as a Polk Intern

Grand Canyon Conservancy sponsors internships each summer at Grand Canyon National Park as part of the Eugene T. Polk Science Fellowship. This program gives college and graduate students the opportunity to participate in a 10-week paid internship with the Science and Resource Management Department, providing valuable growth and development experiences for the fellows and beneficial research, documentation, and conservation support to the park. The program is also a pathway to federal employment, with many alumni becoming park rangers and scientists at our country’s national parks.

Two recent Polk Internship alumni did just that. Using the education and hands-on skills they received during their internships at Grand Canyon, Tania Parra Guardado and Baylee Christensen are now employees of Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks, respectively.

Tania Parra Guardado

A 2021 Polk Intern focused on vegetation at the North Rim, Tania Parra Guardado is now working as a Biological Science Technician (Restoration) at Yosemite National Park.

"My family has been camping in Yosemite since I was around 10 years old," said Guardado. "We tried to get to Yosemite every summer, and I fell in love with nature.”

This love of nature led her to pursue a career in science. After receiving a B.A. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of California Santa Cruz, she began working on a master's degree in environmental science at Cal State Fullerton. During that time, Guardado assisted the team at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with bat monitoring. Her master’s degree capstone focused on explaining which habitats were important for bats in Glen Canyon, and what limiting factors pushed bats to certain areas of the park.

After finishing her master’s degree, Guardado saw the listing for the Polk Internship at Grand Canyon, but it was for the vegetation department and not wildlife biology. However, learning about plant species was a hobby of hers, and she had always wanted to get into plant biology and restoration.

So, Guardado applied for the internship and was thrilled to be selected as a vegetation intern on the North Rim.

“I absolutely loved it!” she said. “It was the first time I did official restoration work with plants, and I learned techniques to monitor plants and think about my work from a restoration perspective. This was hands-on work, and it pushed my career to become a biologist focused on working with plants.”

During her internship, Tania monitored endangered sentry milk-vetch populations and contributed to restoration efforts around wastewater treatment plant pipes.

Guardado also learned a lot from her Grand Canyon co-workers.

“I saw how happy they were in their jobs, and it was very inspiring,” she said. “They are passionate and driven, and very encouraging, especially [Vegetation Program Manager] Lonnie [Pilkington]. He was an amazing boss and wanted me to succeed. He helped me get to where I wanted to be."

After completing her internship, Tania was hired as a crew lead on the North Rim, doing more hands-on work with the restoration efforts around sentry milk-vetch. Her career has now brought her back to Yosemite where she is working to restore the Merced River's banks and meadows.

“We’re aiming to restore the Merced River, its banks, its meadows,” she said. “We’re also restoring the riverbank by the Ahwahnee Hotel, where there’s a lot of rip-rap (rock along the river to harden the banks). We are taking that out and replacing it with native plants, which act as rip-rap but enhances wildlife.”

Guardado’s time as a Polk Intern has been a guiding force in her career, and now she’s sharing that with others.

“I’m currently working with an intern and I’m talking to her about my journey and my time as a Polk Intern, encouraging her to follow this career path because it’s so rewarding,” she said.

Baylee Christensen

Baylee Christensen's path to the National Park Service was marked by a desire to find her purpose and passion. While a student at Dixie State University, her partner at the time found the Polk Internship and encouraged her to apply. The internship became her gateway into federal employment, fueling her dedication to ecological restoration.

During her internship, Christensen’s research project involved assessing juniper tree dieback and establishing native pollinator gardens at the North Rim. She also published an article detailing this experience in the 2022 fall/winter issue of Canyon Views. Her hands-on experiences as a Polk Intern broadened her horizons, leading her to work as a fire effects monitor at Grand Canyon National Park after graduation. This unique field combines fire ecology and data collection, which she had hands-on experience with during her internship. Through her work, she contributes significantly to preserving the ecological balance of the park and its diverse ecosystems.

"I must say, I've really been loving my job!" she said. "Our day-to-day job is the data collection, in which we travel to pre-established locations on park service land and collect information about the land itself. This helps us understand the impacts of fire on the landscape. We gather all sorts of information, such as plants and shrubs present, ground fuels (how much sticks/logs/litter are on the ground), tree health data, and counting new tree seedlings.

"Another part of our job is working on wildfires and prescribed burns, in which we get the opportunity to go on fire assignments, where applicable. Fire effects monitors actually monitor fires as they're happening, which means that we are taking weather measurements, calculating the fire rates of spread, reporting our findings, and doing other duties as assigned."

The Polk Internship was a transformative stepping stone for Christensen, introducing her to the culture of federal employment and navigating the USAJobs.gov application process. It allowed her to forge connections, develop valuable skills, and set her on a path of exploration and growth while finishing her college degree.

Inspiring Future Generations of Environmental Stewards

The impact of the Polk Internship extends beyond Guardado and Christensen. The program is instrumental in helping interns make connections with like-minded individuals and providing an introduction to federal employment. The experiences gained during the internship prepare participants to navigate the intricacies of conservation careers, fostering a strong foundation for future job opportunities.

The Polk Internship also provides invaluable opportunities to work on essential conservation projects, contributing directly to restoring and protecting Grand Canyon's unique ecosystems. Guardado and Christensen’s experiences highlight the program's role in fostering the next generation of environmental stewards

Originally Published: 12-19-2023