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Outdoors Zahner Scholarship supports WCU student’s research in Highlands

Erik Ahl conducts studies in a stream as part of his research at Highlands Biological Station through the Bob Zahner Endowed Fund in Environmental Sciences.Field program held at the Highlands Biological Station

Environmental science major Erik Ahl, recipient of a new scholarship supporting the scholarly activities of Western Carolina University students at the Highlands Biological Station, says there is nothing he would rather do than catch snakes in and around the Highlands area.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to earn school credit than to be out in these beautiful areas catching and inventorying reptiles and amphibians for what will be the initial records for ongoing research,” said Ahl, a senior from Franklin.

Ahl worked during the fall semester as an intern with Jason Love, site manager at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Otto, assisting in the surveying of reptile and amphibian populations at several sites in Macon County. He is continuing that data collection this semester, as he completes work toward his bachelor’s degree.

Ahl is the first recipient of a scholarship from the Bob Zahner Endowed Fund in Environmental Sciences, created in 2008 by the Barstow Family Foundation. The fund helps WCU students participate in a semester-long field program held at the Highlands Biological Station and administered through the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment.

“The scholarship made it possible to afford the tuition, since the cost was more than double what I usually pay at WCU,” Ahl said.

David and Marcia Barstow of Black Mountain, longtime friends of the Zahner family, established the fund as a tribute to the late Bob Zahner of Highlands — an especially fitting memorial in view of Zahner’s deep dedication to environmental conservation in the region and his role as lecturer in the early years of the Institute for the Environment program in Highlands, said Anya Hinkle, associate director of the Highlands Biological Station.

The core element of the program is experiential learning, a principle that especially resonated with Zahner, Hinkle said. “During the program, we try to give students a real feel for the landscape, give them a sense of belonging to and knowing something about the southern mountains,” she said. “We try to provide them with the sorts of experiences that will translate into interest and attention to the natural world, and further, to stewardship.”

After Ahl graduates from WCU, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in ecology and conduct additional research to help in his ultimate goal of obtaining his doctorate.

“I am very honored to have been presented with a scholarship in the name of such a revered conservationist as the late Dr. Robert Zahner,” he said. “Spending the semester at the Highlands Biological Station helped provide a strong base in ecology. The field work and excursions, along with my internship with Coweeta, provided me with valuable experience not just for my own education but to make me a more viable candidate for a graduate research assistantship.”

Reports based on the research conducted by Ahl and other students have been printed and bound, and will be available on the station’s website, http://www.wcu.edu/hbs/CEP.htm.

Jim Costa, director of the Highlands Biological Station and a professor of biology at WCU, said many Western Carolina students have benefited from Highlands Biological Station research facilities and programs over the years. Besides the fall program, WCU undergraduates and graduate students take summer field biology courses at the biological station, and WCU students are regularly among successful applicants to the station's annual grant-inaid program, which supports graduate research.

“The immersion experience of the station’s fall semester-in-residence program is potentially the most formative educational opportunity the station can provide for undergraduate biology or environmental science majors,” Costa said. “We very much hope that the Bob Zahner Endowed Fund in Environmental Sciences will grow so that future WCU students can also take part in the Institute for the Environment program at Highlands.”

To make a contribution to the Bob Zahner Endowed Fund, contact Chris Mueller, director of major gifts at WCU, at (828) 227-7124 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or send a check made out to the “WCU Foundation” specifying the Zahner Fund, to Mueller at the Office of Development, 201 H. F. Robinson Building, Cullowhee, NC 28723.


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