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Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences

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Double Major Explores Sustainability, Reintroduces Endangered Flora

Student-faculty collaboration aims to grow numbers of rare plant species

Student-faculty collaboration aims to grow numbers of rare plant species

Elias Acosta in greenhouse lab

By Thanh-Thao Sue Do ‘19

Rising junior Elias Acosta Mendoza ‘20 (Environmental Studies and Economics) credits his Bay Area upbringing with his desire to protect the earth. Prior to attending Santa Clara University, however, he had never considered the impact of economics on the environment. For Acosta, the connections between the two disciplines came from a microeconomics course he took as a requirement for his Environmental Studies major. The course inspired him to add an economics major in order to better learn about “the study of scarcity” and other environmental issues.

“I love the combination [of environmental science and economics] because there are times that they completely contradict each other. The way I see it, we should bridge the gap to find rational solutions to the problems that arise,” says Acosta.

Acosta, a first generation college student and a LEAD scholar, had never worked as part of a science research team. Nevertheless, when a more senior member of the LEAD program, Jason Nguyen ‘18 (Biology, Public Health and Spanish Studies), told him of the opportunity to work with Prof. Justen Whittall (Biology) as part of Whittall’s research team, Acosta jumped at the chance. The research experience was supported by collaborative funding from the REAL Program and LEAD Scholars.

Whittall, Acosta and recent alumnae Alissa Wilson ‘17 (Biology) spent the summer studying the differences between hand-pollination at the campus greenhouse and natural pollination at the Forge Garden. The team explored efforts to reintroduce the endangered Ben Lomond wallflower (Erysimum Teretifolium), with hopes of producing 20,000 seeds by late fall 2018 — 100 times the current number of existent plants of its species. This reintroduction, Acosta says, is only a representation of necessary sustainability as it demonstrates the “balance between what we use and what is available for us.”

Because of Santa Clara University’s small campus, Acosta says “professors genuinely care about students’ growth,” which is why undergraduate research like that in the Whittall Lab is so much more meaningful to him. After graduation, Acosta plans on expanding his network and knowledge in the environmental and macroeconomic career fields.


About the REAL Program

The College of Arts and Sciences developed the REAL Program to allow students to discover their interests, gain a rich understanding of a particular field, discern their career goals, and explore future employment fields. We believe financial means should not determine whether or not a student can participate in internships, research, or creative works opportunities. Committed to providing paid experiential learning opportunities for students, the REAL program provides stipends up to $5,000 for undergraduate opportunities lasting up to 10 weeks over the summer. In 2018, its first year, the REAL Program distributed $550,000 to over 125 students.

For more information about the REAL Program, email

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