Zoe Wong-VanHaren

Zoë Wong-VanHaren ’25 at work in the Outback.

Seed by Seed

Pitzer students preserve a rare Southern California ecosystem on campus

By Bridgette Ramirez | Fall 2023 Issue


hat did Claremont look like 100 years ago? One parcel on Pitzer College’s campus gives us a glimpse: the Outback Preserve. Home to alluvial sage scrub—one of the rarest ecosystems in the world—the Outback is a 3.4-acre living-learning laboratory for students to engage in hands-on science with California’s indigenous plants.

Environmental analysis majors Tommy Shenoi ’24 and Zoë Wong-VanHaren ’25 made the Outback a passion in action. After taking Professor Emeritus Paul Faulstich’s Restoring Nature class in the Outback, Shenoi and Wong-VanHaren were inspired to create an independent study to establish a seed collection.

“We have developed an appreciation for the Outback, its microclimates and seasons of growth, and the incredible amount of knowledge about seeds and restoration ecology,” said Shenoi.

Tommy Shenoi

“We have developed an appreciation for the Outback, its microclimates and seasons of growth…”

—Tommy Shenoi ’24



By creating a seed bank, Shenoi and Wong-VanHaren preserved the genetic material of plants and aided in future restoration projects. They also worked on a floristic inventory and herbarium specimen vouchers (pressed plant samples).

“The Outback is one of the last pieces of native coastal sage scrub habitat on Pitzer’s campus,” said Wong-VanHaren.

Shenoi and Wong-VanHaren collaborated with Seed Conservation Program Manager Cheryl Birker at the California Botanic Garden (CalBG), which houses one of the largest seed banks dedicated to the long-term conservation of California’s native flora. The students used Birker’s lab to process and prepare seeds from the Outback for storage at the botanic garden.

Professor of Environmental Analysis and Director of Pitzer’s Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability Susan Phillips was the academic adviser for the independent study, which began an ongoing partnership between the Conservancy and CalBG. Phillips provided funding through the Conservancy for Shenoi and Wong-VanHaren and allowed her students to forge their own path for the project.

“It was fascinating to learn something experientially rather than theoretically,” said Wong-VanHaren.

“We were doing hands-on work and learning from something that isn’t necessarily incorporated into the classroom,” said Shenoi. “We were using our senses and learning more outside than inside.”

Shenoi used geographic information systems (GIS) to build on a map of Pitzer’s trees (created by Joey Sulpizio ’22) and broaden the data to include all flora in the Outback. This spring Shenoi presented his interactive map and floristic inventory database at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting.


For their seed preservation project, Shenoi and Wong-VanHaren also partnered with the Outback Club and Professor Monica Mahoney, an adjunct faculty member who took over the Restoring Nature class to ensure the Outback’s continued care. Shenoi wanted his GIS work to continue supporting this effort.

“As data and drone photography continue to be collected, my database will be used by the Restoring Nature class and Outback Club to analyze trends of plant diversity and plant health and inform long-term restoration plans,” said Shenoi.

For Wong-VanHaren, their work in the Outback had strong ties to Pitzer’s core values, especially interdisciplinary learning.

“We were learning a range of subjects, from the importance of certain plants to Tongva people to the scientific names for the different parts of seeds,” said Wong-VanHaren.

Shenoi and Wong-VanHaren appreciated the opportunity to chart their academic course with Phillips’ support.

“Independent studies can personalize your studies if you find a professor who can support you in a topic that they know well,” said Wong-VanHaren.

“It’s also more intimate,” said Shenoi. “We got to work one-on-one with our adviser and partners.”

In many ways, this independent study continued the project Shenoi launched in summer 2022 as a Hive fellow when he utilized human-centered design to help Claremont students connect to their environment and local plants. “In our time of climate change and natural habitat loss, preserving these spaces is vital to protecting our keystone species, improving the health of our communities, and connecting to our local ecosystems,” he said.