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Pranati Tungala

Caravel Academy, 12th grade

My role model is the great Saguaro Cactus: the hero of America’s Sonoran Desert. Arguably the single most important species in the arid lands of the American southwest, the saguaro uses nearly every part of itself to turn barren wastelands into thriving ecosystems, deservedly earning itself the title of keystone species. Its thick stem hoards water to provide relief to thirsty animals, its winding spined limbs provide protected shelters for birds, and its flowers supply nutritious nectar and sweet red fruit. Even after its death, its remains provide shade and shelter for ground-dwelling creatures. My first introduction to the saguaro was at age six, through Brenda Z. Guiberson’s picture book, Cactus Hotel. The countless hours I had spent learning about plants with my mom in our apartment’s tiny, overcrowded balcony garden didn’t prepare me for the puzzling pictures of the thorny, leafless cactus. How this standoffish giant with its menacing thorns and 40-foot tall trunk could be the savior of deserts was beyond me, but the book entirely changed my initial impression. Wonderfully realistic depictions of the saguaro’s large curling limbs welcoming arrays of birds and bats and snakes and lizards into its arms stretched across the book’s pages, convincing me that the cactus was certainly the most generous being on this whole planet. The saguaro’s dedication to service and ability to find productive purposes for its outwardly peculiar features became qualities I strived to emulate myself. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve been able to recognize the qualities that I found so interesting in this cactus in the real world around me. From the bees that pollinate flowers to help with food production to the frogs that control dangerous mosquito populations to the birds that disperse seeds far and wide to support new plant growth, there are so many complex ecological relationships that have developed in the world around us, including relationships within human societies. I realized that, though I lived 2,500 miles away from the blazing hot Sonoran, at the hospital I volunteered at, there were saguaros all around me in the form of health professionals. 

They filled various roles, making the hospital into a balanced ecosystem that provides not only the necessities of food, shelter, and health but also safety and support, despite the difficult conditions surrounding them, much like the saguaro does in the inhospitable desert. Through the inspirations from these “saguaros” around me, I was able to learn that even without natural life-giving qualities of the cactus, I too am capable of becoming a key for improving my community. Though it may seem like a strange notion, I truly feel that the natural world around me, such as the Saguaro, are what inspire me and many others to find their own role in helping their own communities. 

That being said, though I look forward to one day seeing in real life the towering Saguaro that has had such an impact on my life in its natural home in the Sonoran Desert, my hope of doing so is threatened. With the severe high temperatures brought through human-caused climate change, the future of these organisms, as well as many others, are extremely threatened. Though it may seem as if the thick-skinned, water-holding cacti are immune to the effects of high temperatures, this is far from the truth. Existing adult Saguaros suffer from limb loss and eventual death due to an inability to properly respire in heightened night temperatures, and the next generation of Saguaro seeds are unable to germinate due to changes in the already sparse precipitation patterns. The combination of these issues provides for a grim outlook for the future populations of these wondrous plants, and this outlook is not uncommon for other species as well. Pollinators such as bees suffer from high temperature-caused changes to the flowers they get nectar from, predators like frogs suffer from the loss of their habitats through drought, and seed dispersers like birds have their seasonal migration and mating cycles negatively altered by unpredictable climate patterns. These are only a few examples of the damages brought to the organisms that make up the delicate ecosystems that developed carefully through thousands if not millions of years. Without changes to current anthropogenic practices that contribute to climate change, these damages will undoubtedly only diversify and expand, leaving our futures barren of the abundant biodiversity that helps us so much in the present. 

Without a doubt, however, I strongly believe that the inclusion of an environmental science perspective in fields that may seem completely unrelated will help current and future generations with preventing the destruction caused by climate change. Undertaking a senior thesis project on utilizing DNA nanopore sequencing to measure agriculture’s impact on antimicrobial resistance helped me realize the depth of the connections between environmental issues and issues in other fields (like public health). Human agricultural practices of overusing fertilizer/manure have been known to lead to issues that worsen climate change, such as the nutrients from the fertilizer run off causing algae blooms that release methane, a greenhouse gas. However, I learned through this project that this overuse also has the harmful effect of spreading antibiotic resistance genes through the water/soil systems to new bacteria populations, which contributes greatly to human illness and deaths that arise out of being unable to treat these newly resistant bacteria. The dual negative impacts of these human agricultural practices on the world’s ecosystems as well as on human health shows that more connections between fields like these will allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the practices that cause these issues and will lead to more incentives for people to change these practices. Keeping environmental consequences in mind when exploring other fields, from public health to law to engineering and any other field is what will hopefully allow us and future generations to develop in sustainable ways, not only benefiting us humans, but also all the ecosystems of the world around us that support us! I hope that personally learning more about these connections with environmental science will help me always include my idol, the saguaro’s, holistic approach to service and innovation, and I hope that this approach becomes more widespread through the raising of awareness around environmental issues like climate change. 

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