Alix Pfennigwerth. [Courtesy photo]

Alix Pfennigwerth received her master’s degree in ecology from the University of Tennessee in 2017 and immediately moved to Moab to work for the United States Geological Survey. During her time at the USGS, she fell in love with the Colorado Plateau and Moab, where she spent two years studying climate change and drought in grasslands.

In 2019, Pfennigwerth moved to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to work as a biologist and science communicator before returning to Moab in 2022. She worked as a freelance writer and part-time hiking guide for the Nature Conservancy. Science Moab, the local nonprofit, realized that she was a perfect fit for a role with them. She came on board as the Science Certified program director in December 2022. 

Moab Sun News: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Pfennigwerth: So, I’m a scientist by training. I have a master’s in ecology. I’ve been a scientist, I’ve been a researcher, but I’ve always been really interested in different things like teaching, guiding, communicating science and being in outdoor recreation. It just seems like they sort of culminate in my role at Science Moab. The longer I’m in this position, the more I’m realizing how this is such a great intersection of a lot of my different interests and experiences and skills.

Moab Sun News: What is the Science Certified program?

Pfennigwerth: Science Certified, in a nutshell, offers place-based science communication training designed specifically for outdoor guides. It is unique in that it’s geared specifically for guides—to our knowledge, there’s not really any other program like this in the country, which is kind of nuts. 

It’s unique also in that the science we focus on is specific to this area and the science communication techniques we train on are specific to scenarios and situations that guides find themselves in. It is developed by and with scientists, and it’s also taught by scientists. 

But I think part of how unique the program is speaks to how unique Moab is. We have so many guides. A lot of our scientific instructors have also worked or are working as guides, so there’s no doubt they understand the issues.

Moab Sun News: Why is this program important?

Pfennigwerth: I think it’s crucial to empower guides to feel more comfortable communicating science. A lot of the guides we work with already have an existing base knowledge of a lot of the natural history here. But the feedback I’ve gotten is that sometimes it’s hard to know how to talk about the science in a way that is interesting to visitors or clients. So not just talking about a rock or a pool of water but talking about how all those things are related and why it matters. 

I think ultimately the big picture goal is when we can get guides feeling more empowered and more comfortable with communicating science, they can share that with thousands of visitors that they spend close time with, which will help them feel more connected which will hopefully then translate into them being stewards and caring about recreating responsibly. 

Last year, we certified over 150 guides at 10 different companies; by the end of this year we’re on track to have certified at least 18 companies and over 350 guides. That’s the ultimate goal: work with a small group of guides to ultimately impact thousands of people. 

Moab Sun News: What sort of training is it? How much of a commitment and how in-depth is it? 

Pfennigwerth: The standard training is a full day currently focused on ecological processes, geology and biocrusts. Those are our three modules right now and we have some more in the pipeline. We do outreach to companies, some companies have reached out to us and we’ve also had individual guides contact us to sign up. We charge a small fee to cover our costs and sustain the program and companies can apply for a 50% reimbursement for the training through Utah’s Custom Fit program. We’re still working out how we can make this sort of training more accessible to smaller companies and nonprofits.

Moab Sun News: You just held your first Science Certified course as the program director. How did it go? 

Pfennigwerth: I had spent two or three months preparing for that moment—getting instructors onboarded and working with all these different companies and going through all the curriculum. To finally have that day where we just got to work with the guides and see them be so excited and engaged and excited to share their knowledge and also to practice the different techniques we teach. I think that was just a really good day to see it all come together and see our other instructors teaching firsthand. So that was pretty awesome. 

Moab Sun News: What’s been your main challenge since taking over as the Science Certified program director?

Pfennigwerth: It’s been an interesting process. Basically, as soon as I started, I had to just start outreaching to communities and really being a voice and representative of the program immediately. That was fun, but also kind of challenging. Something I did this winter was to research the guiding community here in Moab—rafting, biking, hiking, climbing, canyoneering, and motorized off-road ATV and Jeep tours. It’s incredible to realize how many companies and guides there actually are here. It’s incredible. 

We definitely want to try and work with the motorized community. I’m giving a talk at Jeep Safari and reaching out to gauge interest. We don’t have anything scheduled this year yet, but there’s definitely some interest from some companies. 

Moab Sun News: What’s the future of the program look like?

Pfennigwerth: Science Moab is in this really exciting transition period. Early on, it was basically Kristina Young [Science Moab founder] doing a podcast. Even when [my partner and I] moved back to Tennessee, I watched Science Moab growing from afar, like oh, they have an AmeriCorps VISTA now. Oh, they have staff now. Oh, they have these new programs!

Now we are growing and have paid staff and new programs and so many people reaching out to us saying “Can you give a talk here? Can you partner on this thing?” And for now, we don’t have a huge capacity to do all those things and have to turn some things down. We have to really think about all of these requests that come in to see if they fit our mission. The next step is really making the whole organization more sustainable. 

For me, this is a dream. I’ve always just loved being in the outdoors with friends and family and teaching them about the ecology—trying new ways of explaining things until I find something that interests them because I love getting to feel that science can be relevant to everyone.