Movement ecology field biologist Sarah Wicks ’21 always felt drawn to wildlife and the natural world, and her upbringing instilled a deep sense of stewardship of the Earth. During summer internships with the Houston Zoo, it became clear to her that conservation, specifically working with animals, was in her future, but the only question was how.
When she was touring colleges, Wicks sought out schools that supported interdisciplinary interests and cultivated students' curiosity. “I wanted to attend a university with both a rigorous academic environment and a welcoming, positive student culture, which I found in abundance at Trinity,” Wicks says.
Trinity’s First-Year Experience course “Climate Changed” was very impactful in Wicks’ education. “It really opened my mind to the urgency of conservation work and exposed me to the many ways we can all contribute to climate solutions, regardless of career path,” Wicks explains.
Wicks cites the experiential learning and animal behavior courses she took with Troy Murphy, Ph.D., professor of biology, as important because it was hands-on classes like those that pushed her problem-solving and research skills while teaching her concrete skills like behavior analysis and biodiversity surveys she could immediately apply to her fieldwork. In addition, lab classes throughout the biology curriculum emphasized the project design, programming, and data analysis methods that are now crucial to her work.
In addition to her science courses, Wicks minored in Spanish. “I’m incredibly grateful to the professors of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures for helping me expand my cultural understanding of Latin America and grow my confidence and competence in a second language that I now use professionally,” Wicks says.
During her time at Trinity, Sarah Wicks ’21 took advantage of Trinity’s interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts, taking courses in biology as well as Spanish.
A Summer 2018 Trinity University Study Abroad Costa Rican Ecology field course led by David Ribble '82, Ph.D., dean of the School of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, was a turning point for Wicks. “I wholeheartedly credit the course and Dr. Ribble for changing the way I think about tropical conservation,” she says. “I became enamored with the rainforest and the thousands of ecological stories that play out every second of every day. The unique role of each organism and the messy, harmonious balance of a healthy ecosystem captivated me, and the endless questions and possibility for new discovery kept me hooked.”
Wicks deeply appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the course, which incorporated classes with Richard Reed, Ph.D., professor of sociology and anthropology, and input from their Costa Rican guide, Maikol Cruz, on the social and cultural background of Costa Rica to give students a greater understanding of its progress and challenges in conservation and ecological restoration.
Wicks’ time studying abroad was foundational to her undergraduate experience, and she encourages students who are on the fence about studying abroad to take the plunge.
“A leap of faith is always scary, but I can guarantee you'll be glad you took it. There is truly no better time in life to have the entirely unique experience that study abroad provides,” Wicks asserts. “Immersing yourself in an unfamiliar environment takes you out of your comfort zone in the best way, and chances are good you'll create lifelong friendships and find new passions to chase while you do it.”
Wicks now works with Osa Conservation (Conservación Osa), an NGO in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica, preserving and protecting some of Earth's wildest places. She collaborates with Osa Conversation’s international team to learn more about neotropical scavenger networks and the predators driving them in South and Central America. She has been most fascinated by Central America’s largest scavenger, the king vulture.
In her current role at Osa Conservation, Wicks has been fascinated with studying the king vulture, Central America’s largest scavenger.
“Vultures are understudied yet crucial players in the rainforest ecosystem. They're the clean-up crew of the natural world, and we rely on them to remove pathogens and toxins from the environment,” Wicks explains. “Our team uses innovative conservation technology like solar-powered GPS harnesses to analyze how key vulture species move throughout a human-impacted landscape, what that can tell us about ecosystem health, and understand what threats to these species may be on the horizon.”
In the future, Wicks would like to work with the predator species that directly influence the scavenger network, especially ocelots, which are present in Texas as well. However, due to habitat destruction and urban expansion, ocelots are highly endangered in our home state.
Wicks looks back on her time as a student and is grateful that Trinity gave her the opportunity to pursue her varied interests, which included dancing with the Swing Bums, volunteering with the Animal Welfare Club, and singing with Voix d'Espirit all four years she was at Trinity.
“One Trinity tradition that holds a special place in my heart is Vespers and Christmas on Oakmont. As part of the choir, I loved creating the holiday music that brings people together and the atmosphere that makes that time of year so special,” Wicks says. “Even in the midst of stressful finals seasons, it was a welcome celebration of community and holiday spirit at our home-away-from-home.”
This summer, Wicks got the chance to meet up with faculty and students on the 2023 Costa Rican Ecology study abroad trip.
Wicks’ journey came full circle earlier this summer when she had the privilege of receiving the current Costa Rican Ecology students and professors during their fieldwork at the Osa Conservation campus this week. “It was such a joy and inspiration to see the passion the students have for their work and to reconnect with fantastic mentors Dr. Ribble, Dr. Kelly Carlisle, and Dr. Greg Hazleton,” Wicks says.
Trinity inspires and prepares alumni like Wicks for a life lived fully outside the realm of what they previously thought possible. Wicks admits, “Although the path felt unconventional, I was fortunate to have the support of family, friends, and exceptional mentors along the way. I'm so grateful to everyone who has supported me on this journey and helped me launch an incredible career in conservation.”
You can learn more about Osa Conservation at https://osaconservation.org/.