top of page

How Save the Rainforest inspired me to become a scientist

Guest blogger Heidi Meudt describes her involvement in Save the Rainforest as a high school student. Her experiences planted a seed within her that grew and blossomed into a career in scientific research on southern hemisphere plant taxonomy and conservation.

I was actively involved in the Save the Rainforest during all four years I was at Dodgeville High School from 1988-1992. Bruce Calhoun was my freshman science teacher, who encouraged us to learn about deforestation and inspired us do something about it.

As one of the founding student members of Save the Rainforest, I enthusiastically stuffed envelopes with my classmates and mailed out newsletters to other schools. These were the first steps we took as a school – and as individuals - into environmental awareness and activism.

During those years, I remember hearing the phrase “think globally, act locally”. Although rainforest deforestation was occurring in countries and continents far away from our small town in rural Wisconsin, we discovered that there were things that we high school students could do about it at home. At first, our actions were quite local: stuffing envelopes, coming up with ways to save energy at home, starting a recycling program at school, talking to our local newspaper about our group.

After the first couple of years, we found ourselves acting on the national stage. Thousands of other students and teachers at other schools wanted to join us, CBS came out to interview and film us, and we raised funds, selling baked goods and Save the Rainforest t-shirts, to support certain local projects in the rainforest. We started learning about the economic and political issues surrounding deforestation, and how other environmental problems are related to it. We began petitions and letter-writing campaigns to Congress and the House of Representatives about specific environmental policies that would affect nature in the U.S. and abroad. We felt empowered by what we were learning and doing.

At this point, my involvement with Save the Rainforest simultaneously got both very personal as well as international. At the end of my sophomore year in May 1990, I attended a national youth environmental conference in Washington, D.C., where I got selected to speak at a Senate hearing with Al Gore (a U.S. Senator at the time) in attendance. I was inspired to keep learning, sharing my experiences, and taking action.

Heidi testifying at a Senate hearing in 1990. Photo by Bruce Calhoun.

During the summer of 1991, I went on my first two-week Save the Rainforest trip to Belize, where a group of us students and teachers experienced first-hand the beauty of the oceans and rainforest in some areas, as well as ecological degradation and deforestation in others.

I came back to Dodgeville with a fire in my belly to educate other students about the rainforest. I gave slide shows at other schools to promote Save the Rainforest and show them why we all need to act to protect these natural areas. I made a conscious decision to be vegetarian as one way to live out my environmental principles.

We members of Save the Rainforest were part of a worldwide environmental cry for action: I could feel it, and I could see that we were making a difference. In 1992, Al Gore wrote his inspirational and seminal book, Earth in the Balance, and the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although I did not attend the Earth Summit, I did participate in another Save the Rainforest trip to Ecuador that summer, after graduating from high school.

Heidi taking notes while birdwatching during the Save the Rainforest trip to Ecuador in 1991. Photo by Bruce Calhoun.

For me personally, Save the Rainforest’s overseas trips for high school students and teachers have been life changing in multiple ways. First, I experienced the rainforest with local scientists, indigenous people, and conservationists, who taught me about the biology, ecology, issues and day-to-day realities surrounding tropical rainforests. This was the first time I had seen biologists doing actual field research, and I could walk alongside them, helping and learning about the plants and animals myself. Second, we stayed in research huts in nature reserves, and met other like-minded students and teachers who were as passionate as I was. It is the first time I was in another country, without my parents, doing something that I loved. Finally, another “light bulb” moment was seeing that I could pursue a career that combined two of my budding passions – biology and Spanish.

In fact, I went on to do exactly that! As an undergraduate, I pursued a double major in biology and Spanish. Later, I completed a PhD in Botany, for which I did field work in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Tasmania and New Zealand. I’m now a Botany Curator at Te Papa, which is the national museum of New Zealand, where I continue to do botanical research and outreach. Because some of the plants I study are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, or invasive weeds and herbivores, my research has conservation implications. I also co-supervise university students, supporting and mentoring them in their botanical research projects.

Heidi on a botanical field trip in the North Island of New Zealand in 2020. Photo by Antony Kusabs (CC BY Te Papa).

Although it’s been many years since I helped stuff envelopes at Save the Rainforest, my involvement and activism in the group and its international trips have had a major influence on my career and the way I live my life. I am grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had through Save the Rainforest, which have taught me to go beyond “think globally, act locally”, and instead to act at the local, national and international levels. These experiences have taught me that we all have important roles to play – at multiple scales – in taking action to study, protect, and be a voice for nature. This is especially important today, thirty years after I graduated from high school, in a world with increasingly alarming environmental problems.

Heidi Meudt, PhD Curator Botany - Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Wellington, New Zealand

blogs | ORCID | Google Scholar