From Protecting Bears to Protecting the Environment

Katie Aplis working in Smokys

It was her bike helmet that got people away from the black bears. A few summers ago, Katie Aplis, a graduating senior in UT Austin’s Environmental Science Program (EVS) and student leader in the Campus Environmental Center (CEC), was monitoring bear-human interactions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She’d just averted a series of disasters—got a man to not climb a tree toward a bear and called an ambulance for a child stung by hornets—when she came upon a female bear and her cubs trapped by a large crowd snapping photos.

“I asked everyone to move away from the tree, but they weren’t listening even though the mama bear seemed to know that I was in charge,” said Aplis. “I laid my helmet on the ground and ordered everyone to get behind it so the bears could leave by their only option: exactly where everyone had been standing a few minutes before.”

Since she arrived from her hometown of Dallas four years ago, Aplis has been a leader on campus. Interested in the environment and politics, she chose to attend UT because she was accepted to EVS’s geography track through the College of Liberal Arts. This program provides a background in field work, environmental justice and sustainability. It also provides an immediate sense of community.

“EVS is like a family,” said Aplis. “My first interaction on campus was the welcoming picnic before school started where I met people who are still my friends today.” 

Since that initial picnic, Aplis has been extremely busy.  She volunteered for Wendy Davis’ campaign as a freshman and started the UT Students for Bernie Sanders group the following year. By 2016, she was involved in the CEC as a student leader, first with the communications team and later working with outreach to the larger student body. As a senior, she helped organize workshops as well as two large events that were covered by The Daily Texan: the Box Fort to raise awareness about recycling and the Sustainability Showdown where 12 professors had five minutes to explain why their field was more sustainable and deserved a grant for students.

She also chaired the Green Fund Committee for two years, reading and discussing grants submitted to make sustainable change or research on campus. Green Fund, a fund that pools a small contribution from each registered student each semester, often distributes about a quarter million a year in grants.

“There is so much potential with Green Fund,” said Aplis. “All grants have their own personality: you can see the passion in some, and it is exciting to see what opportunities students see to make UT greener.”

Educational experiences have also been intense. As a junior, she was accepted into the Bridging Disciplines program to receive an additional certificate in public policy. This program expects two internships which Aplis completed this year: she redesigned the website and wrote blog posts for the Sierra Club’s Turn Texas Green and researched legislation proposed in other states to address campaign finance reform for Clean Elections Texas.  She joined other students and faculty member Thoralf Meyer in Botswana last summer help with a larger project monitoring the effects of climate change on vegetation in the savannah. Finally, she spent three semesters applying her GIS skills toward a capstone project in environmental law. The maps that she created are visual representations of inequity, like the location of power plants and higher levels of pollution in relation to income level.

Now that she is graduating, Aplis is not pausing. On the day after receiving her diploma, she is flying to Oregon to begin work as a field ranger in the Siuslaw National Forest.

“My car is already on its way,” said Aplis.  “I packed it with all of my things and put it on a shipping truck during finals.”


Author: Kristin Elise Phillips, Communications Coordinator, Office of Sustainability