Elijah Cetas earns Conservation Biology’s 2016 Rising Star Award

What determines the success of a conservation protected area? Current student Elijah Rempe Cetas examined this question through a Quest Summer Fellowship with Social Sciences tutor Dr. Maï Yasué. In a literature review, they found that projects with at least one intrinsically motivating component were three times more likely to meet the socioeconomic or ecological goals of the protected areas. Their co-authored paper earned Elijah Conservation Biology’s 2016 Rising Star Award, which recognizes outstanding student researchers and communicators. “This really is a testament to what a student can produce through the very close working relationship/mentoring that Quest students receive from faculty,” said Maï.

The paper, “A Systematic Review of Motivational Values and Conservation Success in and around Protected Areas,” was published in the journal Conservation Biology.

After the announcement, current student Parker Carruthers had an opportunity to chat with Elijah.

Parker Carruthers: Starting off, tell us about your background, where did you go to high school, what are your research interests broadly?

Elijah Cetas: I was born in Tucson Arizona, but grew up in Portland, Oregon. I went to public school at Cleveland High School. I’ve always been interested in local politics. I grew up in a very progressive family where my mom always took me to protests. In high school I got really interested in the contract negotiation that was going on with the teachers’ union of the public school at the time. I got interested in how people could work autonomously as teachers vs. a public-school system that was trying to enforce tests and things like that. And that was something that I thought about with the research too.

PC: So building on that, could you expand more on your prior engagement with educational activism?

EC: After Occupy came to Portland, there was a big movement in Portland. In my junior year I joined the student union that had just formed. It was a group of students who were activists and were interested in doing student politics by going to demonstrations, and holding our own demonstrations against standardized testing in particular—just trying to represent the student voice.

My senior year was when this contract negotiation came around. And that year the teachers presented a contract to the board that basically said, “these are the schools Portland students deserve”—that was like their catchphrase. They were really interested in trying to negotiate things like the amount of tests students had to take in Portland public schools, the way teachers’ hours are structured, and the way in which teachers had the ability to design their own curriculum.

So we as a student union saw in that message something really exciting, which was that school isn’t about testing and it’s not about a pre-designed curriculum, it’s about student and teacher autonomy. We got behind the teachers and helped in the contract negotiation. In the course of that year we demonstrated and held walk outs, which we had done in the last year as well. We created forms for opting out of standardized testing, and we went to the school board and testified against the school board management.

PC: And that was in your junior year—what ended up coming out of that?

EC: That was in my junior through senior years. The final contract was much better than the proposed contract by the management. We didn’t win everything we wanted, but it went really really well. And for a while after that there was a strong group of students who had become interested in politics and had become active. It was just kind of a fire-y little movement for a while, so that was cool to see.

PC: So switching from that, how did that bring you to Quest? Or what brought you to Quest, rather?

EC: I came to Quest because I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school; a place where students could figure out their own course and work closely with mentor figures. I always wanted to do the humanities, but I wanted to be in a place where we could be intentional with our own education and what kind of community we want to be a part of.

PC: Felt like a good fit?

EC: I came up and did an interview, and I remember telling the admissions officer at the time about my experience in high school, and she said, “Quest is the kind of school where people can think about some of the things that you’re thinking about.”

PC: So talking about educational activism, and your research interests now, what can you say about your paper, “A systematic review of motivational values and conservation success in and around protected areas,” that won Conservation Biology’s 2016 Rising Star award? Maybe breaking that up, tell us about your paper first.

EC: So I got interested in this paper when [Social Sciences Faculty Tutor Dr.] Maï [Yasué] proposed the idea to a number of students. I knew that I didn’t want to study conservation per-say as a major focus at Quest, but I was really interested in this research proposal. The study that Maï and I did was a systematic review, a literature review essentially, but one where you use the articles as data points. You code them and use them to see what those codes say, essentially.

And what she wanted to look at was intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation. We hadn’t figured out how to look at conservation in greater detail than, but what I saw in that research proposal, and what interested Maï, was this question of “to what degree does autonomy, and to what degree does self-determination matter when it comes to the success of a conservation area?” And in my head the same question was “to what does it matter when it comes to the success of education and public high school education?” Because it’s essentially the same problem, where if you have a conservation issue, and you can figure out a really good incentive scheme to get people to conserve, and can enact it in every place, then it seems like you can just run this program, and the conservation area will be successful.

But there’s this question of “to what degree should you have local participation? To what degree does that matter for preserving ecosystems?” In the same way that in what way does it matter that teachers have autonomy over their curriculum?

PC: So it’s much broader.

EC: I was drawn to that question, and I think just trying to see, to kind of put to the test, some of the things that I believed almost dogmatically in high school were true. Like, “yes, teachers should have self-determination.” “Yes, local people should determine their relationship to a national park.” But we didn’t know that in data, and literature was conflicting, and that was what was really exciting about the whole thing. And I think just trying to answer questions that are something that you believe to be true but yet are vague and don’t appear in data very easily. I think those are really interesting to try to put into data.

PC: And obviously it was successful. You did this in the summer, so that was as a Summer Fellow. Could you maybe talk a little bit more about your experience as a 2015 Summer Fellow and what that meant to you as a student?

EC: I had just finished my first year, and I was pretty exhausted. We had a two-week break, and then came back in the beginning of the summer for the Summer Fellows Program. I started a little bit early. We had a conference that we wanted to go to in June, and I worked really hard that first month and got a lot done. We got a lot of our data, made a poster for the conference, and went to the conference. That was kind of a turning point for summer because from then on it was about finishing the data and writing the thing.

It was interesting because at Quest we don’t get to work on things for any length of time. It was strange to sit with one research problem for weeks and weeks, but I think it was really meaningful. It was challenging too to stay on top of your work and your research when it’s just so big that you’re trying to do a little bit every day.

PC: Where do you start to chip away?

EC: Exactly, but that was really meaningful as a first year to try to figure that out. It was also wonderful being around other students doing research projects. That was inspiring because most of them were doing Keystone work (there were a few other first years) and they were really excited about it and passionate, and we would have great conversations just talking about it. It was great.

PC: And that has to be valuable as a first year too, talking to those experienced students and getting that insight over the summer.

EC: It was huge. I could learn from them, and listen and hear about what they were researching and about their process. By the end of the summer, hearing other people present, you realize, “these people have done a ton.” And then you’re like, “I’ve done a ton.”

PC: What class are you in currently? We just finished a block, what are you moving into for the last block of the year?

EC: I’m in “What is Life?” I’m just finishing my Foundation courses. I took six Foundation courses this year, I believe, because last year I took two. And the rest, Concentration courses. “What is Life?” I took “Bio BC” last block, and that was interesting in relation to this project—to the Summer Fellows, because I spent so much of that summer reading about people talking about ecology, and interpreting the way people talked about ecology, but not having actually having done any ecology myself.

Studying ecology was interesting, I’d never thought about it really.

PC: And future courses? What is next year looking like as far as coursework goes?

EC: Next year I’ll be taking all Concentration courses. I want to take “Creative Writing” in fall block. I wanted to take “Ancient Philosophy,” but it doesn’t seem to be on the course slate. I want to take “Colonialism and Colonial Identities” with André [Lambelet, Humanities Tutor (History)]. For fourth block, I don’t remember the last one.

PC: You don’t need to have your whole schedule memorized. That’s perfect.

EC: I think broadly I want to take exciting, fun, classes. “Creative Writing” I’m really excited for in particular.

PC: And just stepping back, what’s your Question?

EC: My Question is “How do we Know Ourselves?” but lately in my head it’s become “What is the Meaning of Progress?”

I made it “How do we Know Ourselves” because I had no idea what I wanted to study in the humanities except that I wanted to look at literature, history, and philosophy all kind of bundled together. So I asked, “How do we Know Ourselves?” and now I’m interested in the 19th century, and thinking about what makes the modern identity, and what is the modern sense of self, and where does it come from? I think one of the big ideas of modernity is the idea of continual progress, and I’m interested in literature that’s relating to that.

PC: Just to wrap it up here, tell us something about yourself that we not know.

EC: Oh, I really love comic books.

PC: What sorts?

EC: I love Neil Gaiman, and I love Hellboy comic books a lot.

The Squamish Chief published an article on Elijah’s accomplishment.