Jan 172010
Authors: Phil Lindeman

When Cara DiEnno drops her doctoral dissertation on her desk, it makes a loud thud. The stack is intimidating and barely held together by an oversized butterfly clip.

“There’s the full name, if you really want it,” she says with a laugh. The title is more than 15 words long, but it would be impossible to compress five years of coursework, data collection and analysis into a more reader-friendly heading.

DiEnno is the undergraduate coordinator for the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship, a part of the Warner College of Natural Resources. She is 31 years old with dark red highlights and the department’s newest doctoral graduate, specializing in environmental communication. When she talks about her academic career up to this point, her youthful enthusiasm still shows.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved learning. The ability to be engaged with top -level learners and research has been incredible,” DiEnno says, leaning back casually in her small office on the second floor of the Forestry Building. “It feels like a big accomplishment because the percentage of people that earn their Ph.D. is so small.”

DiEnno received her bachelor’s from Western Michigan University, where her coursework was the academic equivalent of a triathlon. She majored in both biomedical and environmental studies with minors in chemistry and art.

“She is an exceptional communicator, researcher and individual,” says Jess Thompson, a colleague of DiEnno’s and member of her dissertation committee.

After graduating in 2001, DiEnno took a year off and did a part-time internship with a non-profit organization, the Western Michigan Environmental Action Council, where she was named volunteer of the year. Her work there sparked an interest in service learning and community outreach.

“It wasn’t a job. It was volunteer work, and I liked the opportunity to facilitate that,” says DiEnno, who was also involved with philanthropic activity through her sorority as an undergrad. “It’s good networking to meet other people in the community that are interested in what you are doing.”

The internship pushed her to focus on how science and communication mesh. She was in charge of writing newsletters for the organization and while doing so learned there was a large gap between environmental efforts and the public.

“Having the science background in my bachelor’s was a benefit to me. It gave me some legitimacy,” she says.

Not only was a large portion of the public missing out on vital information, but many scientific groups were failing to deliver or express the information effectively. This realization formed the foundation of her graduate studies. She came to CSU in 2002, working as the coordinator for AmeriCorp, a service learning organization, and earning he master’s degree in two years.

“No one prepares you for the difference between a master’s and a Ph.D., but you’re required to be more self-driven,” she says. “There’s that learning curve at the start of a Ph.D. that means you have to do this on your own and make a claim for the research you want to conduct that is scientifically important and viable.”

From 2006 to 2007, DiEnno worked with the Denver Botanic Gardens and a conservation group, Partners for Colorado Native Plants, as part of her dissertation. The organization is a joint effort by several groups around the state to identify problems with plant and habitat management, according to the Denver Botanic Gardens Web site.

“I didn’t look at the ecological side but the people side,” she says. “We had different backgrounds, and the effort was collaborative, so I looked at the different groups and how they interacted.”

Among other things, DiEnno analyzed teamwork and communication with volunteer groups. An example she gives is of the most effective way to tackle invasive plant species. If one group discovers there is an easier way to remove a harmful weed than pulling it by hand, that group will share the information in order to be more effective. She also looked at how collaboration leads to the creation of group identity.

“Her project is a great example of a local issue and showing how communities engage with conservation efforts,” Thompson says.

Asked about the stack of paper lying ominously on her desk and what she felt when it was finally completed, she said, “I thought, ‘It’s been five years, and it’s almost been done for a while,’ so I didn’t think it would be momentous,” she says. “But when I dropped the 300-page thing off, it felt like, ‘Oh my god, I have free time.’”

Now that her doctorate is complete, DiEnno says she would eventually like to work for a non-profit group, but for now, she is happy at CSU. She teaches a 400-level class, Public Relations in Natural Resources.

“I’m torn because I enjoy the college atmosphere,” she says. “This is a good place to stay while I figure out where life might take me.”

Web Content Editor Philip Lindeman can be reached at csumag@lamar.colostate.edu.

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