Community Science Intern Jax Maldonado Supporting Research on the Tundra

Everyone who works in a national park enjoys a unique experience, but for Jackson “Jax” Maldonado, his summer 2023 internship put all his educational and research interests to work at some of the highest elevations in Rocky Mountain National Park. Jax’s work in community science was represented in a poster presentation at the March 6-7, 2024, Rocky Mountain National Park Biennial Research Conference in Estes Park.

Jax, a senior at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, majoring in biology and psychology, was assigned to work at the Alpine Visitor Center and tasked with developing a new Community Science Project. With recent experience doing plant and pollinator work at Yosemite National Park, Jax designed a research project that will engage visitors in identifying and cataloging alpine wildflowers.
The Community Science project will have both learning and hands-on components, Maldonado said. Visitors first will learn about the tundra and wildflowers, as well as the effects of climate change. From there, with the assistance and supervision of park staff and volunteers, visitors will analyze and document plant species, growth, and distribution.

“Jackson was the perfect person to help launch the Alpine Community Science Program at Rocky. He brought enthusiasm, skill, and focus to the project,” said Interpretive Ranger Cynthia Langguth, supervisor of the Alpine Visitor Center. “He set us up to pilot the program in 2024.”

“This will add to the park’s understanding of the alpine tundra while engaging visitors in meaningful science in their national park,” Langguth continued.

In some ways, Jax is following in the footsteps of Rocky’s pioneer alpine botanist, Dr. Bettie Willard. He worked in the very plot of tundra where Willard conducted her ground-breaking research which increased understanding of the fragility of the alpine tundra and led to government policy to increase protections of these unique landscapes.

The plot Willard marked off in 1959 and used for her research is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the oldest alpine environment study plots in the world. The original plot is just 10’x10’, but protective fencing has been expanded to protect an area of 50’x40’.

A person crouched in a grassy field examining a small white flower.

As part of his research, Jax reviewed Willard’s notes and data in park archives to and compared them to his own investigations. He found there were two plants documented by Willard that are no longer present. Much of the research centers around so-called “indicator plants,” species that help reveal when the alpine growing season begins and ends in any given year. Over time, this data enables researchers to document effects of climate change on the timing and length of the growing season in the very sensitive environment of the high country.

One of the benefits of being a researcher in Rocky’s high country is the opportunity to literally stop and smell the flowers. “The alpine forget-me-not smells like a rich, heavy perfume. It smells great,” Jax said, for anyone who may be wondering.

Jax’s responsibilities included roving Trail Ridge Road educating visitors on what they were seeing and experiencing. He also participated in field work to introduce new breeding populations of the boreal toad within Rocky, an amphibian threatened by the deadly chytrid fungus. Jax said he has such a soft spot for toads now that he’s teamed up with one of his professors at Benedictine to conduct similar research back in Kansas.

RMNP’s Biennial Research Conference was held in Estes Park with the theme, Challenges and Collaborations for Changing Landscapes. The Rocky Mountain Conservancy, Rocky Mountain National Park’s official nonprofit partner, sponsored the conference which was open to the public. More information is available at

Jax’s internship, as well as other education and research internship opportunities, is made possible through the support of donors and the Rocky Mountain Conservancy.

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