Last summer, The University of South Dakota sophomore from Yankton studied genetic variations in the rare endangered species Lupinus guadalupensis. The plant is found at the San Clemente Island, a Navy training ground just off the Southern California coast.
"We did a survey of genetic diversity for that island. We looked for adaptability," she said. "The study is funded by the Navy to conserve the island. This has repercussions for both the military and the economy."
Barnes' work played a major role in her selection for the Morris K. Udall Scholarship. She was chosen as one of the 80 scholars from about 400 applicants across the nation.
The $5,000 award, named for the Arizona congressman who championed environmental causes, goes to college sophomores or juniors pursuing a career related to the environment or to tribal health or policy. Barnes became the second USD student to win the Udall award and can re-apply next year.
Barnes' research on the San Clemente Island plants has far-reaching implications, said Susan Hackemer, associate director of the USD honors program.
"This helps the Navy develop a more efficient conservation policy for that island and many (plant) populations," Hackemer said. "For Felicia, it's a connection of science and the actual application of policy concerning these plant species."
Barnes, a double major in biology and political science, said she wants to pursue a career in environmental law and public policy. After graduation from USD, she is considering studies for both a doctorate and law degree at the University of Colorado or at Stanford University in California.
She doesn't believe she needs to make a choice between the two career areas. In fact, she sees them meshing quite well.
"I want to merge my interests in both of these fields," she said. "There are non-science people making public policy on the environment, and there are people in science with little qualification in public policy. I want to be a go-between."
Her career goal could take her down a number of paths, with one of her choices being the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In fact, she has applied for an EPA internship.
Last summer's experience whetted Barnes' appetite to take her research to the next level. Her findings from San Clemente Island, part of a larger experiment, will be incorporated into a study and sent on for further action.
"The research (for the Navy) solidified my interest, but now that I am done with it, it will became a paper somewhere," she said. "I don't have control over it and what is done with it. I am not a dynamic part of the process."
Barnes said she holds a special interest in the effect of people and chemicals on the environment.
"We produce new chemicals that are released on the environment," she said. "We have brisk toxicity, where there is a low dose every day. There are cases where things aren't so obvious, and we don't know what they can do. Can something cause cancer? We often have tests after the fact."
She holds a particular interest in endocrine disrupters. In one case, plastics used in bottles and toys could affect the growth and development of children, she said.
Barnes' interest in science started at an early age. She credits her parents, Dr. David and Tina Barnes, as stimulating an interest in the outdoors.
"My parents laid the groundwork," she said. "We always went to a national park. We lived on 200 acres of land outside of town. I remember playing out in the woods during my childhood. It was wonderful."
At Yankton, Barnes competed in debate and in Science Olympiad, which foreshadowed her current career interests.
"But it wasn't until my project for National History Day, where I did a performance on (environmentalist) Rachel Carson and her work, 'Silent Spring,' that things clicked. I was inspired by her story," Barnes said.
While she has a passion for science, Barnes said she tries to remain a well-rounded person. She is a Renaissance woman of sorts, playing in the USD orchestra and writing for the campus newspaper, The Volante. She also serves as volunteer coach for the Lincoln-Douglas debate program at Vermillion High School, with a VHS student qualifying for the national tournament.
But the environment has remained at the forefront of Barnes' activities. She serves as co-founder and co-president of the Students Advocating Grassroots Environmentalism (SAGE) chapter at USD, coordinating the Earth Week activities now under way. She promotes recycling on campus and in the community, and she led an unsuccessful effort last fall to pass a Crawford Woods ballot measure for Vermillion.
While the Crawford Woods issue failed, Barnes said she learned a great deal about both nature and politics. Most people see business and the environment as extreme opposites, but that's not true, she said.
"People are a lot more environmental than they realize. The economy and environment are linked. If the environment becomes more sustainable, it will build a better economy," she said.
"We hear a lot of rhetoric and partisanship. People think you are either a tree-hugging environmentalist or a Republican only interested in business. But (GOP president) Teddy Roosevelt helped establish national parks."
The United States has to care for its long-term future and not focus on instant gratification, Barnes said.
"The environment and what happens to us can be intertwined," she said. "Temporary sacrifice can provide a long-term economic benefit. We need to look at the human condition 50 years from now."
Barnes' activities dating back to a very young age provided a key factor in her selection as a Udall Scholar, Hackemer said.
"(The selection committee) wants to know this is more than something that you got interested in last year. You have to show leadership early on. Because of that, it's quite unusual to get this (honor) as a sophomore," Hackemer said. "Felicia can go back to high school and show she placed sixth in the National History Day competition with her oral interpretation of Rachel Carson. That, and a couple of organizations she was in, were important in her application."
Barnes shows an unusual ability to combine various talents and interests, Hackemer said.
"Felicia is saying that there are not enough scientists actively engaged in creating policy. She wants to be one of those leaders who has the scientific background and training but is also actively involved in creating policy," Hackemer said. "She has demonstrated leadership capabilities and advocacy interests. For the Udall scholarship, she came at it in a different way."
Barnes will learn a great deal when she travels to an Arizona conference as part of her Udall scholarship, Hackemer predicted.
"Felicia will meet policy makers and community leaders in the environmental field," she said. "Out in Tucson, the students connect to each other. They get this real vibrant sort of energy that comes when a bunch of really passionate college age kids get together. They have the talent and motivation."
"Being invited to the conference may actually be more valuable than the scholarship money itself," Hackemer said.
Barnes has already touched many lives along the way, Hackemer said.
"For Felicia, it's a combination of having a focused passion and a lot of ability," Hackemer said. "Her strong work ethic got her to where she is. It's a bonus that she's a really nice person doing a lot of things on campus."