BOZEMAN — Olivia Jakabosky was a toddler when her family moved to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California, where she saw firsthand the problems that arise when humans and wildlife exist in the same space. Now, she is being rewarded for her drive to craft solutions to issues stemming from these interactions and empower others to launch similar endeavors.
Jakabosky, who is majoring in conservation biology and ecology in the Department of Ecology in the College of Letters and Science and Cameron Presidential Scholar in the Honors College at Montana State University, has been awarded the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship for her efforts. The scholarship is given to sophomores and juniors with exceptional commitment to issues related to Native American nations or the environment. Students are nominated by their institutions.
“It is wonderful to see students like Olivia rewarded for following their passions,” said Yves Idzerda, dean of the College of Letters and Science. “That kind of enthusiasm and commitment has impact on others in the university community. I am excited to see what comes next for her.”
Though only at the end of her sophomore year, Jakabosky has worked on research projects with department head Diane Debinski and associate professor Wyatt Cross in Ecology. In the fall, she reached out to Lance McNew, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences in the College of Agriculture, and is now studying how trails and roads affect the dusky grouse population through his Wildlife Habitat Ecology Lab.
“The distinctive personal qualities that make Olivia stand out are her keen interest in science and her dedication to finding new opportunities to work in diverse research endeavors, both at MSU and beyond,” Debinski said.
Jakabosky has also been busy outside the classroom. She volunteers her time and often her social media feeds to raising awareness about ecological issues. She is a coordinator for the Honors Presents team and helped bring National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale to Bozeman in February 2020. Jakabosky, who said she is Filipinx and white, also helped establish the university’s first pan-Asian association.
“Olivia quickly distinguished herself as an outstanding student focused on protecting our natural world,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the Honors College. “To be named a Udall Scholar in her sophomore year is a remarkable achievement. We are very proud of her.”
COVID-19 permitting, Jakabosky will visit Paraguay this summer for an internship she designed with Para La Tierra to study the impact transformers and power lines have on urban howler monkey populations. Her project includes interviewing community members to learn the influence the monkeys have on their lives. Jakabosky sees reaching out to stakeholders in the area of concern as a crucial component of all of her projects. Involving their voices from the beginning, she said, will help empower them to take action on workable solutions for both the environment and community interests.
Paraguay will be her first taste of tropical ecology. The field is of special interest to Jakabosky, who has her sights on research in the Philippines, where she traces part of her lineage. The country of over 7,500 islands has incredible biodiversity. However, repeated colonization has harmed both the people and the environment, Jakabosky explained. In tying together ecology and community, she hopes to protect both.
“We have a lot of lost history, especially pre-indigenous history,” she said. “I truly believe that the natural world is tied to cultural heritage. Preserving the natural world, especially in the Philippines, will protect our heritage, livelihoods and the biodiversity of the world.”
Jakabosky’s love of nature started early. As a kid, her family had a menagerie, with horses, rabbits, chickens, snakes, lizards and mice — a testament to her mother's passion for animals. Jakabosky was intrigued by the variety of life around her and how it can work collectively in mini ecosystems like her fish tank. To feed the interest, she gravitated toward television shows like “Zoboomafoo” hosted by brothers Martin and Chris Kratt and “Bindi the Jungle Girl,” with Bindi Irwin.
“I grew up being so amazed and in awe of the natural world,” Jakabosky said.
When she witnessed someone kill a rattlesnake on a road popular with runners, she struggled to understand the motivation. She was told the snake could potentially harm someone, even if it seemed to be minding its own business. A young Jakabosky said she understood, but she cried and brought the snake flowers.
The incident inspired Jakabosky to volunteer as a bird and wildlife rehabilitator at the Sierra Wildlife Rescue for four summers and stands out when she thinks about interactions between humans and animals. It solidified her dedication to solving conflicts between them.
“Honestly, they were there first,” she said. “There has to be a way to coexist.”
Now, she said she would move the snake away from the road and start an education campaign to warn people in the area of the danger.
In honing her path, Jakabosky was largely inspired by a documentary on Dominique Gonçalves, a National Geographic Explorer who manages the Elephant Ecology Project for Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. In areas at the edge of the park where elephants damaged crops, Gonçalves created a fence of sorts with beehives hanging from strings as a natural deterrent for the elephants.
Like Gonçalves, Jakabosky hopes to craft simple solutions for human-wildlife conflicts and inspire others to lead conservation efforts in their own backyards.
“It’s very crucial that it is all hands on deck to help our environment,” Jakabosky said. “We’re running out of time.”
The Udall scholarship provides up to $7,000 for the awardee’s junior or senior year. The 2021 scholars will connect Aug. 3-6 for an orientation to learn about the Udall legacy of public service and interact with previous and present awardees and leaders in conservation, tribal health care and government.
According to the Udall Foundation website, “the Udall scholarship honors the legacies of Morris Udall and Stewart Udall, whose careers had a significant impact on Native American self-governance, health care, and the stewardship of public lands and natural resources.”
Contact: Ilse-Mari Lee, firstname.lastname@example.org, 406-994-4110