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Scholars of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking

SOC CEF Sylvia Johnson 2011 Scholar

Center Scholars

CEF's Center Scholar program supports the next generation
of environmental and wildlife filmmakers.

Scholars of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at AU's SOC

A message from Chris Palmer:
The Scholars program recognizes and salutes graduate students who show outstanding leadership qualities as reflected in their thesis films. Five or more Scholars are selected annually based on their ability to further the Center’s mission. Each Scholar receives a $2,000 stipend.

Our world faces unprecedented environmental challenges, from climate disruption to species extinction. The Center for Environmental Filmmaking was founded on the belief that powerful films, images, and stories can play a key role in fostering conservation and bringing about change. We are committed to raising awareness and empowering action through the innovative use of media.

Our mission is to inspire a new generation of filmmakers and media experts whose commitment to environmental stewardship drives them to produce creative work that is informative, ethically sound, entertaining—and makes a positive difference.

Center Scholars are selected each year as they embark on their thesis projects and chosen during the second year of their graduate program when they have accumulated at least 18 credit hours. Part time students are eligible.

Scholars must meet the following requirements:

  1. Be in good standing, have a record of excellence in film, video or new media production, and a minimum GPA of 3.5.
  2. Exhibit outstanding intellect, leadership, and ambition.
  3. Show they are determined to make films that matter, that make a difference, and that make the world a better place.
  4. Demonstrate in past work perseverance, creativity, passion, diligence, and integrity.
  5. Have a thesis topic which advances the Center’s mission.

By December 1, please submit a one page letter describing how you will use a $2,000 grant to further your thesis film.

Include with the letter your project proposal, which should include a synopsis of your film, a list of anticipated expenses, the name of your lead faculty advisor, an up-to-date resume, and a note from your advisor that the project has been approved. A faculty committee will judge the entries and grant awards based on each student’s merit and commitment to the mission of the Center. Scholars will be announced by December 20.



2014/2015 WINNERS:

This year's winners are grad students Vanina Harel, Jamey Warner, and Nick Zachar for their selection as 2014/2015 Scholars at SOC's Center for Environmental Filmmaking. They will each receive $2,000.

These three outstanding grad students are being recognized for their determination to make films that matter, that make a difference, and that make the world a better place. All have demonstrated diligence, creativity, and passion. Summaries of their film projects are below.

Vanina Harel is producing Living the Ocean, a 30-minute documentary film about a Mauritian fisherman who, when he discovers that his livelihood is in jeopardy because of his own actions, decides to join a conservation group to protect the ocean. The film will be broadcast on public television in Mauritius and designed to engage and inspire the local fishing communities to demand marine protected areas around the island.


Jamey Warner

Jamey Warner is partnering with Dr. Nancy Knowlton, the renowned marine scientist and the Smithsonian Institution's Sant Chair of Marine Science. Building on the Smithsonian's own Ocean Portal, they will create a series of short web-based stories centered on successes in ocean conservation efforts around the globe with the underlying theme of "ocean optimism".


Nick Zachar

Nick Zachar's thesis film Invasion will explore issues related to the invasive lionfish in Atlantic waters, including the negative effects on coral reef ecosystems and how local fishermen and economies are being affected. The film will also search for solutions that will help alleviate the negative pressures of these "alien" fish.  






The next round of the Scholars Program will be next fall (deadline December 1, 2015). 

Congratulations again to Vanina, Jamey, and Nick!

Past Winners:

  • 2012/2013: Maria Arreguin, Erin Finicane, Sarah Gulick, Sylvia Johnson, Brian Kelley, Ana Sotelo, Jenny Stratton, and Corin Wilson.
  • 2011/2012: Sarah Gulick, Helenah Svedberg, Jennifer Stratton, Aditi Desai, and Sylvia Johnson.
  • 2010/2011: Aditi Desai, Kai Fang, Jeremy Polk, Irene Magafan, and Sylvia Johnson.
  • 2009/2010: Ellen Tripler, Danny Ledonne, and Shanon Sparks

You can learn more about their projects below. Please contact Chris Palmer at palmer@american.edu or 202-885-3408 with questions.

2012/2013 Center Scholar Winners

Maria Arreguin and Corin Wilson are producing an action-adventure web series for children designed to encourage responsibility and enthusiasm for the environment. Particular emphasis will be on exploring and celebrating the wilderness within the United States.

SOC Ana Sotelo

Ana Sotelo is a multicultural documentary filmmaker. She recently completed her thesis project Guardian of Guano and is currently in her native country Peru. In Peru she is working on a film that explores the role of knitting in the lives of women who migrated to the capital Lima in hopes of better lives. She is also working on a documentary about the longest wave in the world, found in Chicama, and on several commercial projects.

SOC Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly has been producing original environmental films for LinkTVs Earth Focus for the past two years. His work ranges from stories on human wildlife conflict to environmental injustice. Most recently he finished production on an original show drawing attention to the negative consequences of coal ash dumping in the United States. For his thesis project he has jumped into the alligator laced swamps of Florida and trekked through the mountains of Costa Rica, in order to bring back a unique perspective on wildlife filmmakers. His thesis project will be featured on the filmmakers for conservation website.

SOC Jennifer Stratton

Jennifer Stratton is a storyteller, educator, thinker and maker. She grew up with a strong spirit of exploration, constantly moving around the globe as part of a Naval Special Warfare family. Her current work, American Soil, documents the individual lives and collective experiences of a community of U.S. military veterans transitioning into careers in sustainable agriculture, gardening, and foodways. As a Center for Environmental Filmmaking Scholar, Jennifer traveled to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to help teach students media production skills. And Jennifer was recently the Motion Graphics Director for 'Menhaden: The Most Important Fish in the Bay,' which premiered on Maryland Public Television 2012. The film won three regional student Emmy Awards and has screened at national and international film festivals over the past two years.

SOC Palmer Scholarship Recipients 2013-2014

Sarah Gulick and Erin Fincane have been traveling the country, braving the elements and exploring some of our most remote national parks to finish up their web series on America's Wilderness. They have survived 115 degree heat in the Sonoran Desert; they have discovered million year old fossils in the Petrified Forest; they have schlepped gear up the steep mountain faces of the North Cascades; and they have soaked up the gorgeous sunsets of Olympic's wilderness coast. It has been an adventure packed year for these two CEF scholars, and they bring home with them the incredible stories of America's Wilderness. Through their web series, Erin and Sarah hope to reconnect American audiences with their public lands and expose viewers to the range and richness of wilderness experiences in this country.

Sylvia Johnson is a Fulbright scholar and National Park Service Film Fellow. Her short film, Alagados was an official selection at film festivals across the globe. Sylvia is currently in post-production on Roaming Wild, a documentary about the controversy over wild horses in the West. Tens of thousands of wild horses call Western states like Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico home. An invisible battle is being waged across the American West–over resources, water, freedom–and wild horses find themselves at the epicenter of an age-defining controversy where the demands of modern development collide with the needs of the wild.

Past Winners

SOC CEF Sylvia Johnson with horse

Sylvia Johnson is a Fulbright scholar and National Park Service Film Fellow. Her short film, Alagados was an official selection at film festivals across the globe. Sylvia is currently in post-production on Roaming Wild, a documentary about the controversy over wild horses in the West. Tens of thousands of wild horses call Western states like Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico home. An invisible battle is being waged across the American West–over resources, water, freedom–and wild horses find themselves at the epicenter of an age-defining controversy where the demands of modern development collide with the needs of the wild.

SOC CEF Danny Ledone

Danny Ledonne has screened his comedy documentary, Duck! (a duckumentary) at film festivals nationwide. This quirky film about the many relationships between humans and waterfowl has shown at Montana CINE, the American Conservation Film Festival, and Film Fest Twain Harte, with ongoing screenings by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Danny teaches filmmaking at Adams State University in southern Colorado and runs his own video production company, Emberwilde Productions. He has recently finished editing a road trip film about the kindness of strangers called American Bear, shot/edited a documentary about surviving in the wilderness called A Perilous Journey, and is currently writing/directing a documentary about the origins and future of Santa Claus. Danny has also developed and taught the "wildly" successful Classroom in the Wild: Chesapeake Bay course since 2012.

SOC CEF Antarctica

Photo by Jeremy Polk

Jeremy Polk is a former scholar of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, and produced three short films examining climate change. The films feature glaciologists from around the world, who Jeremy met during his travels to the National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL) in Denver, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), in Boulder, Colo., the Brook Lab at Oregon State University, and WAIS Divide, a field camp in the middle of West Antarctica. Jeremy's thesis film has been finished for some time. It has received more than 10,000 recorded web views, and has been aired on NSF's "Knowledge Network,” while beingn featured on various websites including pbslearningmedia.org and cleanet.org. Jeremy currently works at Swarthmore College as the school's Media Center Coordinator, and thoroughly enjoys sharing his filmmaking experiences with students.

SOC Irene CEF SCholars

Irene Magafan is a multimedia producer at RHED Pixel, and a former CEF Scholar. Her master's thesis documentary, The Bonobo Connection has screened at various film festivals and continues to make the festival rounds. Her film also screened at the Richmond International Film Festival, Pittsburg Independent Film Festival (official selection), and most recently at the United Nations Association Film Festival in Palo Alto, Calif., The Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York where it won an award for conservation, and the Orlando Film Festival. Irene is currently working on an educational campaign where she takes the film to schools and gives a talk on bonobo conservation. In addition to NBC Washington and Voice of America covering stories on the film, the Potomac Almanac produced a story on the film as well.

Helenah Swedberg set out to chronicle the life of Jackson Landers and his quest to consume invasive species in Close to the Bone, however, her film took a new path as their relationship changed throughout filming. She is releasing her film in the coming months in the wake of Landers’ book release, Eating Aliens. Previously, Helenah was the Director of Photography for the film 'Menhaden: The Most Important Fish in the Bay,' which screened on Maryland Public Television in April 2012. The film won three regional student Emmy Awards for that film, including Best Photography. She also produced, shot and edited a three-part web video series for National Geographic about the male tiger at the National Zoo, and won Vision Awards (AU's own film prize) for that, Best Cinematography and Best Documentary Production.

Aditi Desai is an independent digital storyteller skilled in producing, editing and shooting documentaries with a diverse background in counseling, legal advocacy, peace and reconciliation and environmental conservation work. Aditi has produced videos for clients such as The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Prince Charitable Trusts, PBS, the National Park Service, Discovery Communications and the American India Foundation. Winner of a Cine Golden Eagle, a student Emmy and three TIVA-DC Peer Awards, Aditi’s award-winning programs were featured online in The New York Times’ Green Blog, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, NationalGeographic.com,TreeHugger.com and Discovery.com. Eternal Peace, a film she produced for the National Park Service, went viral on YouTube garnering more than 2.2 million views. Aditi is currently in postproduction of Entangled, a documentary film about competitive kite flying in India.

SOC Ellen Tripler

Ellen Tripler's short documentary film Dying Green is a 2012 Student Academy Award winner, a 2012 College Television Award winner and a CINE Golden Eagle Award winner in the Independent Division. The film is about Dr. Billy Campbell, the town's only physician, and how his efforts have radically changed our understanding of burials in the United States and the revolutionary idea of using our own death to fund land conservation and create wildlife preserves. Ellen and Dr. Campbell were featured on PBS Newshour and interviewed by online correspondent Hari Sreenivasan. The film has also has been theofficial selection of Film Festivals across the U.S. including: Official Selection DC Environmental Film Festival and 2012 Official Selection Montana CINE International Film Festival. Tripler won Best Student Documentary and Best Educational Content (a Merit Award) at the Montana CINE International Film Festival, Official Selection Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, RIFF 2012, Official Selection Myrtle Beach International Film Festival 2012, Official Selection Greenville International Film Festival 2012, Official Selection American Documentary Film Festival 2012, Official Selection Santa Fe Independent Film Festival 2012 and Official Selection American Conservation Film Festival 2012.

Shanon Sparks completed her coursework at American in the Spring of 2010. Her thesis film, a feature length documentary about sharks, hopes to dispel some of the common myths about these graceful creatures, so vital to the ocean’s health. She has interviewed numerous shark experts from a variety of world-renowned organizations including but not limited to Oceana, the Pew Foundation, the National Aquarium, and Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium. To deepen her personal experiences with these dangerously misunderstood animals, she dove frequently with wild reef sharks, Goliath Groupers, Great Barracuda and Moray Eels as the underwater staff photographer. During her experiences, she was fortunate enough to meet with the late Wes Skiles, a famed filmmaker and cave diver. She also had the pleasure to frequently dive alongside Emmy and Oscar Award Winning cinematographer, Frazier Nivens. These vital mentoring experiences supplement a traditional curriculum by adding lessons from veterans in the field, something her advisers strongly encourage.