Artist, yogi, insect lover, and intern: Celeste Chen studies monarchs and pesticides as Kendra Chan Conservation Fellow

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On a typical weekend you can find Celeste Chen exploring local rivers in her home state of Texas, reading books, practicing yoga, and dreaming of opening her own studio filled with art depicting the beauty of the outdoors where she draws her inspiration. 

This summer, Chen, an undergraduate at Texas State University in San Marcos, traveled to California to join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the agency’s second Kendra Chan Conservation Fellow, to study the presence of pesticides on populations of narrowleaf milkweed plants, a critical host plant for monarch butterflies, in Southern California. 

Carly Chen, Kendra Chan Conservation Fellow joins biologists and botanists on a field visit to Channel Islands National Park off the California coast to collect milkweed samples. Credit: Karen Sinclair/USFWS

“This work is important because it will help us understand the prevalence of chemicals in Southern California and provide some insight on how chemicals are affecting the ecosystems and species of concern,” said Chen. “I hope this research, and other research on how nontarget organisms can be easily affected by pesticide use, can help encourage sustainable restoration practices.” 

According to scientists, monarch numbers have faced an astounding 95 percent decline at important overwintering sites along the California coast, dropping from more than 4.5 million in the 1980s to fewer than 2,000 in 2020. The decline is a culmination of multiple stressors from loss and degradation of overwintering groves and loss of breeding and migratory habitat to climate change climate change
Climate change includes both global warming driven by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century humans have had an unprecedented impact on Earth's climate system and caused change on a global scale.

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, parasites and disease, and pesticide use, particularly insecticides. 

Chen's project also included hands-on, in-person outreach with local communities around the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to educate people on steps they can take to help monarch butterflies in their time of need, like planting native nectar plants as a food source, and avoiding planting non-native tropical milkweed, which is known to lead to disease in monarchs. 

Carly (left) at Topanga State Park surveying for milkweed. Photo by Anja Clark

“This fellowship provides a unique opportunity to immerse passionate students, like Celeste, into the complex environment of natural resources conservation while supporting scientific research to help save the beloved Western monarch butterfly,” said Celeste's Service mentor, Karen Sinclair, a wildlife biologist with the Service’s field station in Ventura. “We are so grateful for the time, expertise, and resources from our partners who helped make this project a reality!” 

Celeste feels strongly about the role diversity and education play in the future of natural resources conservation, championing the legacy of the late biologist Kendra Chan after whom the unique fellowship was named.  

“Education is important in order to work towards a more inclusive, equitable, and respectful relationship with the natural world and indigenous communities to reform and amend the wrongdoings of society and the human species,” said Chen. “I believe diversity is the most important thing for the world in general. With a diverse ecosystem, the balance of nature can truly take place. Plans that target a diverse set of components can lead to a more successful outcome. With a diverse community there are a multitude of ideas, experiences, and levels of knowledge that can bring us together and help protect the natural world.” 

Chen collects seeds from a narrowleaf milkweed plant hosting a monarch chrysalis. Credit: Carly Chen/USFWS

Chen will graduate from Texas State University in May 2023 and will prepare and present her research findings for the Ecological Society for America Conference in August 2023, where the results of her study will help inform conservation organizations and land managers work to help monarchs. One day soon, she hopes to return to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to, “spread love and positivity while doing what I can to support diversity on Earth,” she said. 

To read more about Celeste, visit her Faces of the Fish and Wildlife Service profile

About the Kendra Chan Conservation Fellowship 

The Kendra Chan Conservation Fellowship honors the late wildlife biologist Kendra Chan by giving budding scientists an opportunity to learn about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission and help endangered species.  

The fellowship is a two-year commitment and is available to students with a demonstrated interest, education, and/or experience in conservation, and who are enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a rising senior or senior in an undergraduate program. Successful fellows may be eligible for a permanent position with the Service after successfully completing their fellowship and degree requirements. Kendra Chan joined the Service through the Directorate Fellowship Program in 2016 after graduating from the University of California, Davis. She served as a biologist with the Service in Ventura until 2019.