Meet the Fellows, 2020

This post introduces our 2020 Hubbard Fellows, Ashley Oblander (from Iowa) and Dat Ha (from Virginia). I asked both of them to write a short piece describing how they ended up here, so those are presented below.

Supervising the Fellowship has been one of the highlights of my career. Each year, I have the opportunity to meet, mentor, and learn from two young energetic people who inspire me with their talent and challenge me with their questions. Working with them forces me to constantly reexamine our work (in a good way) and to see conservation through different eyes. I hope the opportunities you get to hear from them through this blog provide you with at least some of that same energy and inspiration. Chris

Our 2020 Fellows Dat Ha (rhymes with ‘cat paw’) and Ashley Oblander (rhymes with, um, ‘smashly strobe lander’??) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Dat is smiling extra hard here because he is standing uphill of Ashley and looks taller…

Ashley Oblander

Once at a conference, a keynote speaker told everyone to turn to our neighbors and tell them about the moment that we fell in love with the outdoors. I was surprised that I couldn’t find a good answer-maybe because I’ve always been drawn to nature. Growing up, I spent most days outside in my large wooded backyard or playing in the creek across town, collecting things I thought were neat or enjoying the scenery. I didn’t fully realize my passion until my undergraduate degree at Central College. When presented with the opportunity to do research on bats, I jumped at the chance. The catch was that I would also have to help on a prairie restoration project. I begrudgingly agreed to work with plants, which at the time I thought were boring, in order to work with such a cool mammal. Little did I know during that first summer I would discover the beauty and magic of the prairie ecosystem.

I worked with the Prairies for Agriculture Project for two years, and during that time learned a great deal about prairie restoration and research. The most important thing I learned, however, was that I needed a job that would enable me to spend a lot of time outside doing work that I felt was impactful. I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, so after doing an undergraduate thesis on small mammals in the prairie, I decided to further pursue my interest in mammals and research by getting a Master’s degree at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. There I conducted a study on the different color morphs of the eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) and their physiology. While at UNO, my critical thinking, research, and communication skills were expanded, and after graduating, I was ready to get back outdoors full time.

After a summer of working at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in the elephant barn, I started an AmeriCorps Stewardship Assistant position with the Iowa chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). That position gave me the opportunity to explore and work in both the Loess Hills and floodplain of the Cedar River while learning many practical skills and management techniques and meeting amazing conservation professionals. After my AmeriCorps term was up, I was fortunate to be able to stay on as a Stewardship Assistant for a few months and learn even more.

Working for TNC was a great experience that, if given the chance, I wanted to continue. Working with people that are passionate about what they do in an organization with whose mission I agree strongly became a top priority. I had heard great things about the Hubbard Fellowship, and it seemed like a great next step for my career. I’m excited to experience conservation in a new state and learn from different experts. I’m also looking forward to boots on the ground, stewardship work as well as partaking in research and other aspects of conservation. I mentioned earlier that I want my work to make an impact, and I believe being part of the science and restoration done by the Nebraska chapter, and TNC as a whole, will help me reach that goal.

Although I didn’t have a concrete answer to the question “What moment made you fall in love with the outdoors?” I have many stories that answer the prompt “Tell me about a moment in nature when you were inspired.” I can’t wait to get to work in Nebraska and add to that list of inspiring moments.


Dat Ha

If my dad hadn’t asked our neighbors if I was able to join the boy scouts, I’m not sure if I’d be where I am today. An effort that was meant to detach me from the computer seat ultimately led me to try to find any and every opportunity to be outside. I immediately fell in love with sleeping in the cool night breeze under the stars, sweating my way up mountain summits, and going on endless adventures. These early experiences would go on to influence every decision I made from then on – from every weekend escapade, to summer jobs, and my college major.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (804!) and attended the University of Virginia (Go HOOS) just an hour west. I entered college originally wanting to become a doctor, as many first-generation Asian American college students aspire to be. It wasn’t until my third year that through a combination of soul searching and sub-par grades, I realized this wasn’t the path I wanted to embark on. Talking to my supportive friends and family, I accepted two truths about myself 1) I wanted to help anyone or anything and 2) I LOVED being outside. Through these conversations I eventually discovered my calling and the moment I realized – I quickly looked up what ecology and conservation courses were offered. I ultimately majored in biology with a specialization in conservation.

After this life-altering revelation, I was fortunate to have a few people in the environmental science department take a chance on me. I first helped Kate Lecroy opening bee hotels and dissecting native solitary bee cocoons to research the decline in blue orchard bee populations (Save Native Bees!). I then spent the two summers in northern Wisconsin assisting Cal Buelo and Mike Pace to study early warning indicators to detect an impending algal bloom. There’s something truly magical about being surrounded by water in the inspiring 50-70 degree weather of Wisconsin. These opportunities presented fascinating topics I never even knew of growing up – there was so much more to learn. 

After college, I was all in for conservation, but in what form? Conservation comes in many shapes and sizes – research, stewardship, education/outreach, fundraising – the list goes on. This fellowship was perfect for me – it spelled out a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to work in a novel ecosystem while providing a unique opportunity to learn about the different facets of conservation. Grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems and almost nonexistent on the east coast – the writing was on the wall for the next chapter in my life.

A part of me still can’t fully believe that I’m here – just a few months ago I couldn’t point to Nebraska on a map. I’ve been in absolute awe with my experience here so far – I’ve never seen so many birds and corn before in my life, everyone has welcomed me with warm smiles, and the wind never ceases to blow me away. This is the dream I never thought was possible or even existed, and I’m eternally grateful for everyone who’s helped me get here. I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can about grasslands, conservation, and Nebraska in the next year!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

10 thoughts on “Meet the Fellows, 2020

  1. Ashley and Dat,
    Welcome to the world of Prairies and all that it entails, wetlands, forests, gullies, hills and more. Every place is unique and one size fits all does not work in the aspect of conservation. You have a fabulous mentor in Chris and a wonderful organization that leads through experience in the Nature Conservancy.
    I look forward to reading more from you both!

  2. Thanks for your stories and participation on the Prairies.
    Too many don’t understand what it is ‘out there’ and you have learned and will pass it on. We even have a political leadership that doesn’t value ‘preserving’ open spaces. “Should all be put to some use or be put in private ownership!” They are fools who don’t understand and you do.
    Spread the word.

  3. Thanks for sharing your stories! I ask everyone I meet in the course of volunteer stewardship of Wisconsin’s nearly vanished prairie (circa .10% of pre-settlement prairie) how they come to be passionate about nature in general and prairie in particular. I can recall every story I have heard and can associate each story with the narrator. Now I have two more stories. Why do I remember?Because inevitably the stories have the power to inspire!! And you are so fortunate to work in Nebraska. I have found the Sandhills also have the power to inspire. And thank you for what you do!

  4. Both these Fellows sound incredible! Love the enthusiasm and the different paths you’ve taken to this point. I wish you the best with the fellowship and your future careers! (I also empathize with the joy of standing uphill from friends in photos, in order to look tall :) )

  5. Welcome to Nebraska, “the Peaceful Prairie Land” (according to our state song). We are lucky to have such intelligent and committed young researchers looking out for our precious resource – the prairie. Thank you for your work!

  6. I loved reading Ashley and Dat’s background stories. It made me smile reading their memories and thinking of my own reasons for going into conservation. I can’t wait to follow the rest of their Hubbard Fellows journey through this blog!

  7. Pingback: Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Ashley’s Evolving Relationship with Weeds | The Prairie Ecologist

  8. Pingback: Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Changing Direction: A Post from Dat | The Prairie Ecologist


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.