A Forest of Possibilities: Alumna is a Ph.D. Candidate After a Stint in a Japanese Forest

Rachel Becknell, ’08, found her purpose in a Japanese forest after majoring in international studies and Spanish at Westminster, and the experience forever changed her life. Today Becknell is a Ph.D. candidate in evolution, ecology and population biology at Washington University in St. Louis as a result of three years immersed in nature in Hokkaido, Japan.

“It was a beautiful place to live,” Becknell says of the time she spent teaching English in the northern Japanese island following graduation. “My experience hiking the mountains there is what helped me to develop my love of nature.”

In fact, Becknell loved nature so much she went back to college and earned a degree in biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2015 before attending graduate school at Washington University. She adds that it was a spirit of volunteerism she acquired at Westminster, however, which continues to inspire her.

“Westminster helped me form the mindset that I am not here on this planet soley for myself and those I care about, but that I need to get out into the world and try to make it a better place for everyone, including plants and animals,” she explains.

And Becknell means what she says. The Missouri Master Naturalist has created a large, multi-year research experiment at Tyson Research Center that is producing results which may prove useful for restoring endangered prairie ecosystems.

Meanwhile, Becknell is happy with her hands in the dirt in her research gardens or collecting data in restored prairies at Shaw Nature Reserve.

“Earning a Ph.D. is grueling work,” Becknell says, adding, “But I went into this field because I care a great deal about the natural world and doing what I can to protect it and bring endangered plant species and ecosystems back from the brink of extinction.”

Put that way, Becknell is almost a naturalist superhero. And when she isn’t immersed in environmental battles? Becknell recharges by hiking, reading fantasy novels, sewing and snuggling with her cats. She also spends time with her partner, Seth Lindsey, and two stepchildren, Aiden, 14, and Wyatt, 9.

When asked about her Westminster favorites, Becknell is quick to list off Reeves Library and Professor Emeritus of English Wayne Zade, even though she did not major in English.

“His courses were always so interesting and challenged me to improve my ability to communicate my thoughts and feelings a great deal,” she explains.

Interestingly, Becknell still enjoys writing, although she now writes research manuscripts while discovering whether her hypotheses from data gathering are correct. Becknell adds that she is satisfied with her efforts and that if all goes as planned, she will complete her Ph.D. in 2021.

“I love what I do,” she reflects. “Getting to pursue my passion and see my research make a positive impact makes all of the hard work worth it.”



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Sarah Rummel Backer

Sarah Rummel Backer is the Director of Media Relations and Senior Writer at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. A proud Westminster graduate, Sarah has more than 20 years of experience in marketing and strategic communications in the areas of higher education, medicine, agriculture, and the private business sector.