Not everyone is in a position to turn down a Fulbright Scholarship, but Ellie Ellis, a Durango native and a 2014 graduate of Animas High School, is young, and she figures she’ll reapply for the Fulbright later.
Instead of the Fulbright, she’s accepted the Watson Fellowship, which will allow her to travel to seven countries to study her prime area of interest, the Cambrian explosion, an era 540 million years ago when most major groups of animals first appeared on Earth.
It is from this period, which occurred 454 million years before dinosaurs walked the Earth, that first vertebrate ancestors of humans appeared, but they would be hard to recognize: Chordates were simple fish with backbones that were the ancestors of all vertebrate animals.
“My goal is to write a children’s book about the Cambrian explosion,” Ellis, 22, said. “Every kid has read a book about dinosaurs from 100 million years ago. I want to encourage them to look further back, to 540 million years ago. Ninety-eight percent of the species that have appeared on Earth are extinct by the time dinosaurs appear.”
A conservationist at heart, Ellis said her biggest hope is that popularizing the Cambrian explosion among children will lead them to take better care of the planet today and throughout their lives.
“We’ve been here for just a fraction of the time since life first appeared on the planet, yet we’re having such a huge impact on it,” she said. “When you think in geologic time, you become more aware of just how insignificant we really are in the overall history of the planet, yet we have the capacity to cause so much harm.”
For Ellis, the Cambrian era holds even more interest and romance and has had a more profound impact on the planet than the better-known Jurassic era.
“All the phyla (categories of animals) we see today originated in the Cambrian period. All the life you see today got started during this period,” she said.
As currently envisioned, Ellis’ protagonist in her children’s book will be a young woman scientist who is fascinated by geologic time and how much happened on Earth before the rise of humans.
In the book, her scientist will be able to time travel. She’ll go back to the Cambrian era to swim with chordates, our early fish ancestors. They will teach the scientist about the planet and life and the importance of conservation and taking care of the environment.
In addition to a children’s book, Ellis plans to make videos, perhaps creating a YouTube channel aimed at educating children about the Cambrian explosion.
“Her project makes total sense to me,” said Jessica McCallum, a humanities and Spanish teacher at Animas High School who was Ellis’ advisory period teacher during her time there.
“Ellie is a person who can use both sides of her brain. She’s a great scientist, and she knows how to tell stories. This project itself bridges those realms, science and the human society. It’s totally Ellie.”
Ellis, who graduated this year from Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont College consortium in Southern California, with a degree in geology and environmental analysis, is quick to credit Animas High for setting her on course for her academic success.
“It taught me to be the scientist I am and the student I am. It gave me the confidence to take on a project like this,” she said.
When Ellis applied for both the Fulbright Scholarship and the Watson Fellowship, she said she knew she was most excited about the opportunities offered by the Watson Fellowship.
The Watson Fellowship was established by Thomas Watson, a founder of IBM. He wanted students to pursue their passions in ways not afforded to them by simply entering their profession and working nine to five.
“It definitely was challenging turning down the Fulbright. I never expected to receive both, but I was planning to accept the Watson Fellowship over the Fulbright from the beginning,” she said.
Ellis cited four reasons why she choose the Watson Fellowship:
First, the Watson Fellowship goes to students only the year after they receive their undergraduate degree, and she plans to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship later in her career.Second, she was chosen by her school out of a pool of applicants to apply for the Watson. If she turned it down, she would likely be taking an opportunity away from one of her Pitzer classmates.Third, the Watson Fellowship allowed her to visit multiple countries and does not require a university or research organization affiliation, which allows her more freedom to learn about the Cambrian era and write her children’s book and produce videos.Fourth, she was more excited about her Watson project proposal than her idea for using the Fulbright Scholarship to study in rural Madhya Pradesh, India, conducting soil health analysis.McCallum said the decision to turn down the Fulbright jives with what she remembers of Ellis.
“It’s the authenticity with which she approaches life,” McCallum said. “It’s not about the prestige. It’s about what’s the authentic decision to her.”
With her Watson Fellowship stipend of $30,000, Ellis plans to study the Cambrian explosion by visiting sites in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, China, India, Australia and Morocco.
Ellis left July 31 for the first stop on her Watson year, a dig in the Kootenay National Park, near Banff, Canada.
She will work on the dig with the Royal Ontario Museum looking for Cambrian-era fossils and cataloging the geology where the fossils are found.
Perhaps, she’ll also find a lead for the first chapter of her children’s book.