Elissa Olimpi, a 2006 alumna of Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, spent several months of her college experience deep in the Peruvian jungle researching the bald-faced Saki monkey.
Originally from Sewickley, Pa., the Wildlife and Fisheries Science graduate attributes her love for nature and the outdoors to her childhood. "Although I grew up in the suburbs, I was lucky to have a stream and a forest right in my backyard," she said. "I spent my entire childhood there, collecting salamanders and crayfish and building forts out of fallen branches and trash."
In high school, her love for nature intensified, and the summer before her senior year, she received a scholarship to go on an expedition with an environmental group called Earthwatch. "I spent two weeks in Mexico studying tropical fish, and during that trip, I decided I wanted to continue with field biology," she said.
By the time she was a junior at Penn State, she had already worked with a variety of species in many beautiful places. "I have worked with insects, birds, bats, coyotes and now primates. If I am doing research outside that I feel will lead to better conservation decisions, then I am enjoying what I am doing," she said. "It’s important for me to challenge myself."
Her work in Peru involved traveling to small, remote mining and forestry villages around the Amazon. "I am constantly in new places and new situations, working with new groups of people," she said. "I love the challenge."
Her work with monkeys in Peru led her to work as a primate consultant for the World Wildlife Foundation after graduation, until she took a job with the international organization, ANIA. The position took her to the small town of Boca Amigo, Peru, where she taught children how to compost and helped them start a community garden. The role sparked her interest in environmental education, and she relocated to Montana, where she trained as a river guide in Glacier National Park.
She also volunteered as a naturalist with the Montana Natural History Center and worked with the Watershed Education Network instructing middle school students on stream sampling and invertebrate identification.
"After exploring opportunities in education, I think that I would like to get back to wildlife," Olimpi said recently.
Enjoying the work she did with bats in the tropics, she is now considering enrolling in a Ph.D. program focusing on the flying mammals. For the time being she is backpacking and climbing her way through Utah, Arizona and California and visiting friends along the way. She soon departs for Alaska for a salmon-fishing stint sailing out of Prince William Sound.