The Channel Islands that rise from the ocean just off the coast of Santa Barbara are a nexus of irreplaceable biodiversity. They house populations of endangered and rare plants that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth — except at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. There, a new fellowship aims to safeguard these island ecosystems as well as honor Kendra Chan, one of the 34 individuals who died in the September 2019 Conception boat fire.
A unique partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Ecological Society of America, the two-year fellowship offers research experience and leadership training to aspiring biologists as well as a potential long-term position with Fish & Wildlife.
In the days following Chan’s death, a group of the federal agency’s leaders in Ventura decided to create the fellowship in her honor — “something that could help embrace the characteristics that they saw in Kendra and provide an opportunity for someone to embrace that,” said Chris Diel, an assistant field supervisor who worked with Chan.
“She was just intelligent and thoughtful and calculated, passionate and curious,” said Diel. “She just worked so well at bringing people together to get to that conservation goal.”
The 26-year-old wildlife biologist was a directorate fellow and researcher for Fish & Wildlife in Ventura. Her mother, Vicki Moore, and father, Raymond “Scott” Chan, raised Kendra as a child of the outdoors. From family hikes in California national parks to Girl Scouts to Kendra getting her SCUBA license by age 12, her parents cultivated a lifestyle immersed in nature. Kendra and Scott would venture out to the Channel Islands several times a year to dive and explore the teeming kelp forests. They were together on the Conception, where Scott Chan also lost his life.
“My favorite thing to do similar to tidepooling is to stare at a rock or kelp holdfast and just watch all the tiny little creatures come alive — and you notice the tiny little details — and that’s what really gets me going,” Chan said in a 2018 Ventura FWS Facebook video. This appreciation for nature’s microcosms is echoed by the fellowship’s current focus on seeds, which often require microscopes for proper viewing.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is home base for the project, which seeks to conserve rare plant seeds endemic to the Channel Islands at the nonprofit’s Pritzlaff Conservation Center seed bank. Daniel Cisneros — a senior at UCSB and the first recipient of the Kendra Chan Conservation Fellowship — spends his days testing how seed viability changes over time and developing an interactive virtual story map for the public to learn about the Channel Islands’ native plants.
“We’re taking plants out of their natural habitat and conserving them somewhere else.” said Heather Schneider, a rare-plant biologist at the Botanic Garden who has a PhD in biology and plant sciences. “The seed bank is an insurance policy against extinction.” The ultimate goal is to generate a genetic backup of these rare, native plants so that one day declining or lost populations can be restored.
The story map also serves as a tribute to Chan’s dedication to connecting people with the environment around them. Vicki and Scott — both educators — imparted their passion for teaching to Kendra. After completing her bachelor’s degree at UC Davis, Kendra became an educator at the Marine Science Institute in the San Francisco Bay and often volunteered in community science projects involving the kelp forest or plastic pollution monitoring.
The particular coupling of conservation science with community outreach is not only an effective way to bring the general public into the conservationist fold but is also an emblem of Kendra’s life.
“I’m just amazed at the contribution she made in a relatively short time,” said Vicki Moore. “When you talk about legacy, this is it.”
Cisneros also expressed deep gratitude for Chan’s work as a biologist and educator: “It’s something that I carry with me even outside of work. It’s something I carry with me as a citizen of the world, really.”
The work of conservation inherently entails the preservation of legacies — whether those of ecosystems, knowledge, or responsibilities. Now, Chan’s legacy is ever-entwined with those of ecosystems and communities.
At the end of that Fish & Wildlife video, Chan shares a message that remains a clarion call for everyday citizens to realize their potential for environmental action — a message the fellowship hopes to epitomize.
“Just get outside. Get involved. Work on citizen science projects. Volunteer somewhere,” said Chan. “You don’t have to be a biologist on paper to really be a scientist in real life.”