Girls in STEM Ride 2024

By Brandon Alvarez, Tread Lightly! California Program Manager

The sun rises over the Yuha Basin, bathing the landscape and recently bloomed desert flowers in a warm glow while the faint scent of rain lingers in the air.  This region of the Southern California desert played host to Juan Bautista de Anza on his first scouting trip for New Spain in 1774.  With the help of the Kamais Indian tribe, Anza established a trail from Yuma to San Diego County before turning northward, ultimately ending in San Francisco.  This would later become the Anza National Historic Trail.

Flash forward two and a half centuries to March 16th 2024 and we find another group of travelers embarking on a journey of knowledge seeking and exploration.  Instead of the padres, soldiers, and mules that accompanied Anza, this group comprises students, Girl Scouts, volunteers, STEM professionals, and their trusty 4×4 steeds.  

The Second Annual Girls In STEM Trail Ride is a joint event hosted by Tread Lightly! and the El Centro Bureau of Land Management Field Office that brings together young men and women interested in pursuing STEM degrees and careers and introduces them to professionals who have followed their passions and made careers in STEM.  This year’s ride saw eight young people join with 18 volunteers to hear nine inspiring presentations from Women in STEM. 

The day started with a safety briefing and introductions at the trailhead kiosk just off Highway 98, with some much-appreciated donuts provided by the Rivian team.   The group then loaded up and hit the trail, journeying to the first stop of the day, the Anza overlook.  Granting some amazing and expansive views of the Yuha Basin, the overlook hosted presentations by Traci Pashley and Maricela Rosales.  Traci, a head engineer with Pattern Energy, walked the group through the impressive engineering that goes into the construction and maintenance of wind turbines and was able to use the distant Ocotillo Wind Farm for reference.  Maricela Rosales with the Conservation Lands Foundation rounded out the first stop and spoke to her personal experiences and journey to being a professional in the field of conservation.  

Once everyone had taken pictures at the overlook, the group loaded up and headed down the trail to the next stop.  Descending from the overlook, the trail serpentines its way across the mesas atop a labyrinthine mix of arroyos and washes that make up the badlands of the Yuha Basin.  Our lead vehicle rounds one final bend and a rusty weathered fence comes into view, marking the second stop of the day.  The fence stands out against the stark surroundings, and a small stone plinth marks its midpoint.  One could be forgiven for thinking this barricade serves no purpose, but it guards a cultural treasure visible only from above.  The Yuha Geoglyph, one of the most intricate examples of this type of historic artifact, stands as a tragic example of what happens when people do not follow the T.R.E.A.D. Principles when recreating on our public lands.  

Carrie Sahagun,  Associate Field Manager for the El Centro BLM Field Office, was the first presenter at the Yuha Geoglyph.  She detailed the historic significance of the site and the deliberate defacing done by motorcycle riders in the mid-70s.  She also touched on the role the BLM plays in protecting historic sites such as the geoglyph, and how these sites are still used to this day by Native Americans.  Carrie also detailed her journey in pursuing a degree in Archeology and the hurdles faced on the way to her current position.

The second presentation at the Geoglyph site was a joint venture between Mansi Tandon and Rosanna “Ro” Nuch, both members of the Rivian Rebelle Rally Team.  Mansi, who in her day-to-day life is a Senior Manager of Embedded Software with Rivian, wove a beautiful narrative on her love of the invisible dance of electrons that powers the Rivian Platform and the everyday technology we all rely on.  On the other end of the spectrum, Ro pulled on her decade-plus experience as a mechanic in the automotive and motorsports industry and how she managed to keep each of the Rebelle Rally vehicles moving towards the finish line while solving the myriad of mechanical issues that arise in competitive motorsports. Topping off their presentation was a hands-on walkthrough of the very vehicles that participated in this past Rebelle Rally.  We could have spent all day checking out the Rivians, but more adventure and presentations awaited further down the trail, so rigs were loaded and we embarked once again.

“It’s so important that we come together to encourage young people to enjoy our public lands and consider careers that can help preserve them for future generations.” – Mansi Tandon, Sr. Manager of Embedded Software at Rivian

“Thanks to Tread Lightly!, we had the opportunity to talk about the many sustainable career paths available at Rivian and get more people on the trail in a responsible way.” – Rosanna Nuch, Service Development Technician

Our group followed the trail as it descended from the mesa and into the washes that comprise most of the Yuha Basin.  After winding through the sandy wash for a bit, the walls gradually drop away and we find ourselves in a large clearing, the site of the Yuha Well and our lunch stop that will host the next two presentations.  Camp chairs are unfolded and all around is the rustling of sandwich wrappers and chip bags and even the low roar of a backpacking stove is heard.  With the group rested and refueled, the day’s presentations continued.

Amongst the Jeeps, Rivians, and even a Bronco, nestled a sprinkling of Toyotas sporting mods manufactured by Total Chaos Fabrication, co-owned by Nicole Pitell, and the next speaker on the agenda. Nicole relayed her experiences in building a business from an idea into a successful enterprise with components on countless race vehicles and enthusiast rigs, even holding government contracts.  She then presented the young adults with an exercise in reverse engineering, challenging them to rebuild a Total Chaos upper control arm with a visual reference.  The participants attacked the problem with gusto, placing all the components in the correct configuration in short order.

“It is the best feeling in the world to give back to the kids and the future of our sport. Letting them reverse engineer a fabricated TOTAL CHAOS control arm and watching them put the puzzle together and succeed was extremely rewarding! You could see the wheels spinning in their head and they were fully engaged.” – Nicole Pittel

As the sun moved through its zenith in the sky, Emily Miller, Founder of the Rebelle Rally took center stage.  The Rebelle Rally is the longest competitive off-road navigation rally in the United States as well as the first women’s endurance off-road rally in America.  Emily, who has a rich history in off-road racing and numerous accolades earned on multiple continents, spoke to participants about the math that goes into navigating, and how you can pinpoint your location anywhere on the globe with just a set of coordinates.  Continuing the hands-on theme of this stop, she produced maps of the Yuha Basin and had participants plot their location and orient themselves according to several landmarks.  With a greater understanding of navigation and spatial awareness, the group then loaded up and set out for the day’s next stop.

“We really appreciate Tread Lightly! and Bureau of Land Management working to bring young people into the backcountry to learn more and appreciate our public lands. It’s incredibly important for our future. Adding the STEM component took the event next level, hearing from people finding success in a diverse range of professions. We are already looking forward to next year!” Emily Miller – Rebelle Rally

Leaving the Yuha Well site, the trail once again narrows into a series of sandy washes.  Gradually the crumbly wash walls begin to give way to a series of gently rolling hills peppered with deposits of dark rock.  Eventually, the caravan rolls to a stop in the shadow of a rocky shelf.  Upon leaving the vehicles, several participants notice oddly shaped rocks dotting the wash.  Under closer inspection, patterns of oysters, clams, and other small shells are visible.  The group had arrived at the fossil beds!

The next speaker, Adriana Stovall, a Senior Watershed Scientist, seems all the more appropriate given the ancient seabed, and current flash flood-prone wash we’re all standing in.  Adriana spoke about her experiences growing up surfing and how not knowing exactly what you want to do isn’t a bad thing.  She urged the young people present to follow their passions and reminded them that sometimes things don’t happen overnight.  Her experiences are what led her to create her own Environmental Science Consulting Firm and the freedoms and drawbacks associated with running your own business.  One of the things Adriana stressed most was the vast range of work available to those who pursue a degree in Environmental Sciences.

Once Adriana finished her presentation, Carrie again came to the front, this time swapping her archaeological hat for a paleontological one.  She spoke to the natural history of the area and how fossilized shells ended up in a desert.  Once she had explained the rules of fossil hunting on BLM land, only collecting for personal use and only collection of invertebrate specimens, the group was off.  After about 15 minutes of hunting, the students amassed a small collection of oysters, clams, petrified wood, and gypsum crystals.  Although many could have fossil hunted for the rest of the afternoon, the day was coming to an end, and storm clouds had begun forming to the north.  If we wanted to hear the final presentation of the day and stay dry it was time to leave.  The group loaded up and headed to the end of the trail.

As the clouds continued to darken in the sky, the caravan wound through the final bends in the wash and climbed up to run the ridgelines to the endpoint at Dunway Rd.  It had been a full day of exploration, learning and hands-on experiences, but there was still one speaker in store.  Kirstin Heins, the BLM National Conservations Program Lead, spoke to her experiences working for the BLM.  Starting as an intern, she worked her way through multiple programs in several different states specializing in a myriad of forms of recreation.  She really wanted to stress just how many unique and wonderful opportunities there are if one pursues a position in the BLM and other land management agencies.  As Kirsten’s talk drew to a close, the first large raindrops of a desert thunderstorm began to fall.  A quick group photo was taken and everyone went their separate ways, already looking forward to the next Girls in STEM ride!

“What an amazing and meaningful event! Talented, kind and accomplished female STEM professionals and leaders sharing stories and perspectives from their careers and lives with enthusiastic youth and one another! It was so much fun to spend the day outside together traveling and exploring a section of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, a place that captures the story of a historic and challenging journey nearly 250 years ago. I hope even more young women are able to participate next year. Thank you to everyone who joined or supported the event and to Tread Lightly! for your wonderful coordination!” Kirstin Heins -National Conservation Lands Program Lead

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