Conservation Can Take Many Paths, Part II

Cara Burns, photo by John Slocum

A path often taken by SCA Alumni is to pursue a career outdoors with the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or other agency. That is amazing and we value all the hard work our alums do to preserve, protect, and educate others about our nation’s public lands. We were curious about the varied career paths taken by our alumni. We asked the members of our Alumni Facebook group to share with us where their SCA experience had taken them.

In this three part blog series, we are sharing the stories of SCA alum who love conservation, but found themselves on a different career path. Read part one here >

Part Two: Cara Burns

Tell us more about your SCA experience. What did you do?

My first SCA experience was in 1979. I joined a high school trail maintenance crew in Bryce Canyon National Park. We maintained part of one of the major trails, fighting deer flies and napping after lunch by the trail when it was very hot. We slept under the stars. Given the dry weather in Bryce, we only needed a tarp cover for rain once or twice. We packed in cheese and eggs, which we put in the creek. Our leaders, Blue and Phil Tierney, were an inspiring couple from California. Phil loved spicy Mexican food and added green chiles to our scrambled eggs. Some of the East Coast crew members were not impressed! We dug a huge pit for a toilet. We “bathed” near the creek and covered ourselves in orange clay. We hauled our drinking water to the campsite from the creek. We moved into Zion National Park for five days for our backpack experience after two weeks of trail work. With lots of creek walking and beautiful natural amphitheaters with weeping moss, it was a fantastic experience.

The following summer, I was part of a smaller trail blazing crew based out of the Dartmouth Outing Club, one of the oldest outdoor clubs in the Northeast, led by John Slocum. We paved new sections of the Appalachian Trail in more appropriate areas. We worked for about three weeks and did a weeklong backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail near Mt. Washington, in the Hanover, NH area. My airplane flight to the Northeast was one of the first times I had flown.

Cara Burns' crew 1980

Why did you join SCA?

My good high school friend told me about SCA. We both applied, and I was selected. Unfortunately, she was not. I was interested in nature, biology, and had enjoyed hiking with friends and camping with my family and the Girl Scouts. SCA seemed like a great opportunity to see more national parks and have an adventure. I was interested in careers in the environmental and conservation field but did not know much about the options. My dad was a high school principal and my mom was a substitute teacher, so we qualified for a much-needed travel grant. After my crew experience, I rode the bus back from Cedar City, Utah, to my grandparents’ home in Amarillo, Texas, a small group of us rented a hotel room for a few hours so we could each take a shower. Several buses broke down on the journey home.

How did your SCA experience affect you and your life?

SCA provided leadership opportunities that enhanced my self-confidence and exposed me to environmental careers. I learned more about backpacking, outdoor survival, and trail methods. I met crew members from all over the country and learned from them about regional cultural differences. There were few tortilla chips and salsa in New England at that time, if you can imagine! Crew members came from different socioeconomic, educational, and geographic backgrounds. I loved volunteering for a worthwhile cause.

What is your best SCA story/memory?

We watched July 4th fireworks from the top of a plateau in New Hampshire; we looked down on the fireworks after a hike in the dark to the area where we had been blazing trail on a granite area with wild blueberries. In Bryce Canyon, we had two grueling days of packing our supplies and gear to our home base. I had many dozen cartons of eggs on my back in a pack. After hiking in the heat several miles, I threw the pack off and cracked half of our eggs!

Photo fo Cara Burns, photo by James Carthel

Did it make you want to work in the field?

I had no idea what working in the field would be like, so it was a valuable experience. I loved my SCA experience but decided that I was not going to pursue a ranger job.

Tell us about your professional life now – what are you up to?

I lead a 14-member team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; my team sequences polioviruses that circulate in countries in Africa. We provide support to 28 sequencing labs around the world through the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Polio Laboratory Network, which has been working on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative for decades. With less than 40 cases of wild poliovirus in two countries last year, the end is close.

What do you love about it?

There is never a dull moment. Although the workload is overwhelming at times, we are doing great work with dedicated, talented coworkers. The workforce at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is amazing, and it has been an unparalleled experience to work with public health professionals and scientists around the world. I feel so fortunate to be able to apply original ideas about vaccine design and molecular epidemiologic analysis to a real public health problem.

Does it relate back to what you learned in your SCA service?

My SCA experience prepared me well for leadership in public health. I pursued a PhD in virology at the University of Utah, where my husband worked for Utah State Parks. I started down a path toward working in polio eradication, arguably the most ambitious public health project attempted. Public health has some similarities to conservation work, since both are very important for health and are often underfunded.

Do you volunteer at all? If yes, doing what?

I volunteer on occasion through my church, providing food at homeless shelters or working with religious education classes.

Would you like to return to conservation or environmental work in the future, either professionally or as a volunteer?

I might find time to do single day volunteer events in retirement. I’d like to do more gardening and hiking. My family has been subscribers to community-supported agriculture (CSA) at Love is Love Farm in Atlanta, GA for 10 years. My dad has set an excellent example, gardening and volunteering on the Green Team in a retirement community in Portland, Oregon. My daughter also served twice with SCA, first in California and for a second time at Glacier National Park.