Making a big difference in small increments

Andrea Hazelton never imagined becoming the endangered species botanist for the Navajo Natural Heritage Program as an undergraduate in plant biology at Arizona State University.

Back then, she was busy doing research for School of Life Sciences (SOLS) associate professor Julie Stromberg. When graduation neared, Hazelton began the process of finding a job. But in the middle of her search, Hazelton came to an important realization.

“I did a couple of job interviews and they didn’t work out,” Hazelton said. “And I thought, ‘Well, why am I trying to get another job? I really like what I’m doing.’ Then I asked Julie if I could stay on as a grad student.”

Working on her thesis was the first time Hazelton had a chance to really make a difference by protecting Arizona’s environment. At the time of her program, cities in northern Arizona wanted to pump the Big Chino aquifer, an underground layer of rock from which groundwater can be extracted. It was Hazelton’s job to collect data from the vegetation in the Verde River, which drew water from the aquifer, and tell the Nature Conservancy — a nation-wide, non-profit that protects the environment — how much extraction would damage the plant-life. It was then that she realized her training had prepared her for a career as a scientist.

“The thing I acquired from the School of Life Sciences that I would never give up, and which has made me the person I am today, was just learning to think critically as a scientist,” Hazelton said. “And to do science, you need to think like a scientist, and that’s something that Julie (Stromberg) taught me that I really, really value.”

After graduating and moving to Tuba City for her husband’s work, the SOLS alumna received a phone call from the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“I went over for an interview and they offered me a job the next day,” Hazelton said. “It wasn’t that I was trying to work for a Native American tribe or anything. It was just kind of a weird coincidence.”

Today, Hazelton has been with the Navajo Natural Heritage Program for three years, handling the entire plant-side of the operation single-handedly.

“There’s only one of me in charge of keeping track of all the endangered plants in the Navajo nation—where they’re growing, how they’re doing,” Hazelton said. “And when a company or government agency wants to develop property, they have to go through us as part of their regulatory process to make sure they aren’t negatively impacting endangered species.”

And though the importance of Hazelton’s work adds up in small amounts over time, she says she truly appreciates that her job is valuable.

“The way I look at it is I’m making a difference in really, really small increments,” Hazelton said. “I feel like I’ve been successful in protecting some small pieces of land and some small populations of rare plants that otherwise would have gotten run over by a pipeline or crushed by someone’s house.”

Andrea Hazelton searches for endangered pincushion catci on the south slope of Gray Mountain, near Flagstaff