Alumni Spotlight: On the trail with Carmen Kraus, BFA/BS ’15, MS ’19

Allyson Mann

Contact: [email protected]

Ecology alumna Carmen Kraus (BFA/BS '15, MS '19) at Cape Final on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (NPS Photo - J. Caton)

Carmen Kraus (BFA/BS ’15, MS ’19) always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. After finishing her master’s degree, she spent six months planning her trip before getting started. Five days in, she had to stop. It was March 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down everything—including the grocery stores and resupply locations relied on by AT hikers.

“It was definitely heartbreaking,” Kraus said.

With her plans scuttled, Kraus was at loose ends. But an email from ecology undergraduate adviser Misha Boyd piqued her interest. It was a listing of scientist positions available in national parks, and Kraus applied for several on the spur of the moment. After interviewing for two, she was hired as a summer intern at Grand Canyon National Park, where she was stationed at the North Rim.

As a kid, Kraus had visited the Grand Canyon and really enjoyed it. She’d also seen the Hawaii volcanoes—“absolutely incredible”—and the Smoky Mountains, which she describes as “stunning.”

The Athens native had started her undergraduate years at UGA knowing that she wanted to study ecology and scientific illustration, with plans to go into lab work and use her art skills to illustrate her papers. In graduate school, she’d added training in plant breeding, genetics and genomics. Interacting with the public turned out to be a good fit, allowing her to draw on her education to talk about what’s special at the North Rim—the Kaibab squirrel, for example.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Kraus to cancel her hike of the Appalachian Trail right as she was getting started, but an email from Odum undergraduate adviser Misha Boyd alerted her to opportunities at the National Park Service. She applied and was hired to work at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (NPS Photo – L. Cisneros)

“It’s a really cute squirrel,” Kraus said.

A tassel-eared squirrel with a distinctive white tail, the Kaibab is found only in the ponderosa pine forests of the North Rim and the high-elevation section of Kaibab National Forest. This area is designated as the Kaibab Squirrel National Natural Landmark, but unfortunately they’re rare to see, so Kraus crocheted one to use during the interpretive program she wrote about the squirrel.

“I’d say, ‘In case you don’t get to see one, I brought one with me,’ and then I’d stick his feet under my lapel so he was sitting on my shoulder,” she said. “It always got a laugh.”

Kraus with the Kaibab squirrel she crocheted to use in programs with visitors to the North Rim. (NPS Photo – E. Shalla)

She also used her art skills to create coloring pages designed for all ages: “It’s a great way for people to really look at the landscape and connect with it,” she said.

The North Rim is harder to get to, which means smaller crowds, and the higher elevation—about 1,000 feet above the South Rim—makes it cooler. But Kraus is fond of it.

“It’s a really special place, because you get an intimate view of the canyon,” she said. “There are a lot more trees. There’s a lot of good forest hiking up there.”

During her time there, Kraus hiked from rim to rim across the canyon, a three-day journey of over 20 miles with increasing elevation.

“I went south to north, so I got to hike right back to my house and take a shower and get a sandwich,” she said, laughing.

After her summer at the North Rim, Kraus worked a winter season at Death Valley National Park, which she describes as “stark.”

“It’s the filming location for Tatooine in Star Wars, so if you can imagine that, that’s a lot of what Death Valley looks like,” she said. “It was remarkable to me—a landscape with no trees and hardly any wildlife. It’s a great place to learn geology because there are no plants in the way.”

After working at the Grand Canyon North Rim, Kraus spent a winter season at Death Valley National Park. (NPS Photo – C. Kraus)

After Death Valley, Kraus worked a second summer at the North Rim, and she plans to apply for more work in national parks.

“They were both really valuable experiences,” she said. “I found that I liked working with the general public, and I especially enjoyed doing things that are more graphic design related.”

It’s not the future she imagined when she was studying at the Odum School of Ecology, where she particularly enjoyed classes with faculty members Jim Richardson, Nina Wurzburger, John Drake and Richard Hall: “It’s such a wonderful community. I think we’ve all cried at Misha’s desk,” she said, laughing. “We’d just hang out in the lounge in between classes, and it was always so much fun.”

But Kraus has learned to appreciate the unexpected, and she advises students to stay open to opportunities.

“There’s no one route to any career,” she said. “You just have to keep following what’s interesting to you, and you’ll find your way to something that you enjoy.”