Campus Life

Beyond the Backcountry: Mikenna DeBruin on Creating Everyday Connections to the Natural World

By Lael Gilbert |

QCNR graduate Mikenna DeBruin wants to communicate that "nature" doesn't just exist deep in a forest — it’s in your backyard, city park and on your street corner.

When graduate Mikenna DeBruin arrived as a freshman at Utah State University, she didn’t know how to properly layer, she sheepishly admits. She traversed ice-slicked sidewalks in shorts, tromping bare-legged through frigid temperatures and snow drifts. Her Arizona sun-adapted brain just could not grasp, at first, how cold a northern-Utah-cold could be.

She had just come from the winter-warm suburbs of Phoenix. The reality of Utah mountain weather patterns were fairly new to her, as were activities like skiing and backpacking. But DeBruin had always been in love with being active in the out-of-doors. She had grown up participating in sports, especially tennis, so outdoor movement was familiar ground — just not necessarily among pine trees and pit toilets.

“At first I felt like a bit of an imposter, pursuing a major in natural resources,” she said. “I felt nervous about doing field work-type experiences because I didn’t think I had enough experience to just jump in and do that kind of thing.”

But she soon realized that there wasn’t all that much difference between the sort of outdoors that she was familiar with and the more traditionally defined “natural world” of backcountry forests and sagebrush steppe.

“You learn pretty quickly that the way we define ‘nature’ really should be done much more broadly,” she said. “Watching a bee pollinate a flower in a park half-a-mile from your house is just as ‘natural’ as watching wildlife a hundred miles away from the nearest city … just less, you know, elitist.”

Communicating this sense of cultural accessibility to the natural world has been a priority for DeBruin as she moved through her college career. She has combined a major in Conservation and Restoration Ecology with one in Communication Studies, with a goal to create and share more connections between humans and the world around them.

“I think of science as largely about curiosity, not just about computing complicated statistical analyses,” she said. “I want people to understand that they can do that too.”

She has already had the opportunity to combine her science and communication skill sets, spending summer seasons at Timpanogos Cave National Monument — first in an internship rotating through multiple areas of responsibility, and then as a seasonal interpretive ranger, leading guests on guided hikes and creating opportunities for science conversations.

“When I interact with people, I try to frame things from a lens of gratitude rather than obligation,” she said. “I’ve learned that it is really important to be a listener first, so that you can appreciate and work from the point where people are at.”

She has also now learned to appropriately layer for a nippy sub-zero Logan day, “for practicality and for fashion,” she jokes. But fashion aside, she will soon don the flat ranger hat once more. After DeBruin graduates this year, she will return to Timpanogos Cave for a full season as a ranger in the National Park Service.

She plans on eventually merging her outreach and communication efforts with work on geographical information systems, but she said she’s leaving room for flexibility.

If she could give any advice to an earlier version of her academic self, she would say to “chill out.”

“Give yourself space to find your passion, and be a little patient about it,” she said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about and planning for the future, for what I thought I should be, what I thought I should be doing, but that has evolved. I’ve learned to spend more time appreciating and living in the moment.”


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


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