Cal Poly Students Adventure Into the Unknown, Find Light Hidden Amid Pandemic Darkness

Updated: Apr 11

Zach Raposo (front), Dylan Stephens (middle), Joe Kennedy (back) riding along a forest trail in Oregon | Photo courtesy of Zach Raposo

Rearing its insidious head at the start of 2020, covid-19 first appeared as a catastrophic setback, but for a group of Cal Poly students in the Biological Sciences department it turned out to be a golden opportunity to do the things they’ve always wanted to do before life’s responsibilities piled up too high along the way.

Prior to covid lockdowns and the restriction of in-person gatherings, Biological Sciences professor Nishi Rajakaruna planned to lead the team of seven students to the International Conference on Serpentine Ecology held in Ekaterinburg, Russia in June 2020. Once the world ground to a halt and the trip was no longer possible, each of the students embarked on new adventures of their own, spurring personal growth in ways they never anticipated.

Environmental Earth and Soil Science graduate Zach Raposo took this opportunity alongside Biological Sciences senior Dylan Stephens and Physics graduate Joe Kennedy to complete a 2400 mile bike tour that runs parallel to the Pacific Crest Trail, climbing a grueling 193,000 feet from Mexico all the way to Canada. Their goal was to raise $7,200 - one dollar for every mile between the three of them, which they surpassed by the end of their trip, donating their total funds of $9,640 to the Equal Justice Initiative to help protect basic human rights for vulnerable Americans.

“To me, social justice is about finding a way for every human being to have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential,” Raposo said. “There is no simple solution to accomplishing that, it is an ongoing interdisciplinary process that demands dedication to achieve and maintain. We all have our part to play in bringing about a more just and equitable world."

Zach, Joe, and Dylan raised $9,640 together with their social justice fundraiser “Turn the Wheels” ( during summer 2020 | Photo courtesy of Zach Raposo

"So the charity that we decided on is the Equal Justice Initiative," Stephens said. "They are a nonprofit that's involved with all types of racial injustice, from education to the justice system itself. I mean, fighting against the rape of laws that are ingrained in our actual system relating to minimum sentencing and others, finding lawyers and you know for people that maybe are less privileged and not able to afford a lawyer or would be receiving one from the state, as well as paying bail bonds. So they cover a lot of stuff and from my research I've found them to be a pretty good group. So I'm happy to help support them."

Meanwhile, Microbiology graduate Anthony Ferrero used the change of plans to explore his creative side during quarantine with Cellular and Molecular Biology graduate Peter Walsh. After graduating in spring 2020, the two roommates transformed their living room into a completely soundproof studio, then wrote and recorded an entire original album - a surreal experience Ferrero says helped him learn a lot about himself and his creative process.

“Peter and I we kinda constantly said, I know it's kind of weird for me to say this, but these have been some of the best days of my life,” Ferrero said. “Just having the opportunity to like– we got to live the rock star lifestyle. You know, we woke up every day at like one in the afternoon and then immediately started recording music, finishing writing songs that we were recording, drink some coffee, have breakfast at 3pm, and then drink a little bit starting at like six and then go to sleep. Get tons of sleep all the time, and just get to be creative. Honestly, we have no regrets about the way that we spent quarantine.”

"The shutdown definitely changed my plans, mostly for the better," Walsh said. "I made an album with my roommate/coextremophile in the spring lieu of actual class which was an excellent experience diving into the creative aspects of myself and instead of the conference took the field job with USGS in Sequoia NP I currently have, which has been an excellent way of making money doing things that interest me while spending time in a beautiful place. That said, traveling internationally was going to be very exciting and I think I would have learned a lot and widened my perspective on the world, so definitely missing out as well."

Mary Devlin and Alex Peña also graduated during the pandemic and took up jobs doing the things they love. Devlin applied her environmental science degree to become a naturalist in Orange County, Southern California and Peña joined a wildland fire crew out of Santa Maria to help fight against California wildfires. Working with Crew 7, a US Forest Service handcrew based in Los Padres National Forest, Peña says he's found something he's good at, enjoys doing, and that will help him grow as a professional.

"Looking back - there's a lot of reflection when you're finishing up college," Peña said. "And one thing I've realized is that, I don't regret anything I did, but I was a bit of a workaholic the whole way through and I think there were times where I made the decision to work instead of spend time with people or go do something else when maybe it would have been healthier for me in the long run to take a break from what I was doing and kind of reset, spend some time with some friends or something."

While sheltering in place, Devlin has been learning Spanish and discovered that it doesn’t really matter where you’re located during the pandemic - if one puts in the effort to try new things or find new ways to learn, they can.

“In some ways life is unpredictable, things will change and sometimes unexpected things crop up,” Devlin said. “I think how you choose to react to that kind of says a lot about you. And I would just say, you know, even when it seems tough, try your hardest to find something that is, you know, something that is bright in your life because oftentimes it’s there even if it seems to be a little bit hidden.”

Graduate student Michael Mulroy used this time to delve deeper into his research on lichens of ultramafic substrates in North America alongside professor Rajakaruna and undergraduate mentee Amanda Gersoff. Together, their research is helping to create a comprehensive database of lichens that grow on the rock known as serpentinite in California.

"So lichen are really interesting organisms, traditionally thought of as a symbiosis between a fungus and an algae basically, and they grow everywhere but there are pretty robust communities of lichens on the surfaces of rocks," Mulroy said. "And so people know very little about these organisms and these communities to the extent that, you know, people are discovering new species of lichens all the time. So what I'm looking at is how the types of lichens and their distributions change in response to maritime influences, and also in response to changes in the rock substrate they're growing on."

Mulroy and Gersoff in the field studying lichen growth on serpentinite | Photos from Frost Fund Annual Report (2019-2020)

Although news of the canceled conference was met with initial widespread disappointment by all party members, it did not stop each student from finding interesting and valuable paths to travel in its stead. It goes to show that even in the doom and gloom of the pandemic, light can be found in abundance by those who choose to find it.

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