Photo by Courtney Baxter
Meet Your Leaders
Amanda Bland (she/her)
STARS TO SEA 3 LEADER
Amanda has a deep love and connection to the outdoors. Growing up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, she became fascinated by the water, land, and fauna of the region from a young age. With this appreciation and fascination came the desire to conserve the natural world, and pursue a degree in environmental studies during her undergraduate career. She currently works for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland. The Alliance brings together communities, companies, and conservationists to improve the lands and waters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. She first visited the Vermilion Sea Institute in the summer of 2021 during the Stars to Sea program. The magic of Bahia, and the mission of the institute resonated strongly with her, and she is looking forward to returning as a trip leader for the summer of 2022.
Amanda holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Environmental Studies with minors in Sociology and Chesapeake Regional Studies from Washington College. She also has her SCUBA certification.
Chris Yeager (he/him)
Chris was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and still resides there with his wife and two children. Being a person that is always up for a new adventure he was encouraged by his wife to give SCUBA diving a try. It was there he fell in love with the ocean. Chris is a certified advanced open water diver and a certified Wilderness First Responder. His journey in Baja began in 2019 when he was a participant in the first CampOceano trip with his family. He returned in 2021 as a trip leader on another CampOceano trip and looks forward to leading many more families on their own Baja adventure.
Ellie Place (she/her)
STARS TO SEA 4 LEADER
Ellie grew up halfway between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, and has been infatuated with the natural world since day one. Her career has been dedicated to connecting diverse communities to the outdoors in a way that fosters a deep respect and active stewardship of natural environments. She currently works for an organization that advocates for equitable access to outdoor spaces and connects volunteers with land conservation and trail service projects across the country in national parks, state parks and other public lands, including urban spaces. She has also worked for marine conservation non-profits, coordinating and leading international fish identification community science programs. In her free time, you can find her searching for sea slugs, foraging for mushrooms, tending to her small oyster farm and exploring with her dog.
Ellie completed two undergraduate degrees from Brown University in Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and Hispanic Studies (Spanish Language, Literature and Culture). She recently completed a Master’s in Tourism Management from Colorado State University with a focus on strategic management of sustainable tourism practices, conservation communications, stakeholder engagement and natural resource policy.
Ellie is a certified Emergency First Responder, AED/CPR, and PADI Rescue Diver.
Erin Brack (she/ her)
STARS TO SEA 1 LEADER
Erin is an aquatic adventurer who loves the ocean and Baja. She has been in the teaching profession for many years, initially as a high school science teacher, then a middle school science teacher and today serves as the Elementary Science Staff Training Specialist for Bay County Schools in Florida. Erin loves any and all activities on, in and around the water including, surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and wakeboarding with her family: Adam, her husband, and her two daughters Emery and Addy. When she is not in the water, Erin enjoys running and playing soccer, camping and hiking. Other than being a positive role model for her daughters, Erin has been fulfilling two lifetime dreams of visiting every national park and all 50 states (which became a reality in 2021 checking off state #50 Alaska).
Erin graduated from Tulane University with a Bachelors in Science in 2000. She then attended Florida State University where she earned a Master’s in Education and decided to pursue yet another Master’s degree in Biology when she learned about Miami University’s Project Dragonfly and the unforgettable Earth Expeditions.
Helen Corveleyn (she/her)
Helen is dedicated to promoting and shaping Elementary STEM Education every single day in classrooms throughout Hopewell Elementary school and the broader school district. Her passion is inspiring young people to become planetary stewards who can communicate scientific ideas and promote innovation in science and sustainability. Helen serves as Director of Gardens at HES including both outdoor soil and indoor hydroponic gardens to support the award winning, “Best in New Jersey” Farm-to-School Program. She runs the Nature Harmony Project which infuses STEM and the arts with Social Emotional Learning in an outdoor education setting.
Helen holds a BS. in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Marist College and a MAT in Conservation Biology from Miami University of Ohio. She has certifications in Earth Systems teaching from Columbia University, and is completing a STEM education certification from Rider University.
Jay Ballard (he/him)
STARS TO SEA 2 LEADER
Jay has been exploring the natural world since he was a small child and has been formally involved in conservation for nearly 20 years. When he is not swimming alongside whale sharks in Baja, Jay lives in San Diego, California where he works as a Volunteer Coordinator at the San Diego Zoo overseeing the interpretive and enrichment programs. He has worked on conservation projects in the USA, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, and Malaysia and has participated in multiple Stars to Sea programs. Jay looks forward to travelling to Baja every summer to visit the most peaceful place on Earth, see his whale shark friends, meet new participants, reconnect with past participants, and make some amazing memories. Also, if you find yourself needing CPR or First Aid, Jay’s got your back as he’s CPR/First Aid certified.
Jay holds a bachelor’s degree in Zoology and certificate in Environmental Studies from the University of Hawaii at Moana and a master’s degree in Biology from Miami University’s Global Field Program.
He also is a Certified Interpretive Guide through the National Association of Interpretation.
Kathy Ilcken (she/her)
STARS TO SEA 4 LEADER
Kathy grew up all over the state of Florida and has enjoyed adventuring with friends around the world. She has worked in environmental education from both non-profit and corporate perspectives and really believes in connecting people with nature where they are. She is currently working for the Denver Zoo and is responsible for engaging guests with conservation-based works. Her fishy passion spans from being excited about tiny friends under rocks to maintaining her rescue diver certification, ensuring those around her can safely enjoy the underwater world too! Kathy’s spare time is spent with her three dogs in the mountains and/or sipping coffee.
Kathy completed her Bachelor’s in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation with a minor in Interpersonal Communications from the University of Florida. More recently, she graduated with her Master’s in Business Administration with a focus in Organizational Leadership. Kathy also is certified in AED/CPR, First Aid, and a NAUI Rescue diver.
Laura Frost (she/her)
STARS TO SEA 1 LEADER
Laura is an avid explorer who is enthusiastic about travel, nature, and trying new foods. She is passionate about science and enjoys teaching her 8th graders about the world around them. She has been with her husband James for over 15 years and they have three adorable cats. Since first experiencing the wonders of Baja during Project Dragonfly’s Global Field Program, it has become one of her favorite places to visit and is a home away from home.
Laura holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Chemistry through the University of Mount Union and a Master’s of Art in Teaching Biological Science through Miami University.
Mallory Peebles (she/her)
STARS TO SEA 2 LEADER
Mallory has always had a passion for animals, and after partaking in the Stars to Sea program in 2017, her love for marine wildlife grew tenfold. When she’s not enjoying the sights of Baja, Mallory resides in Los Angeles, California, working as an animal care professional at the Los Angeles Zoo in their hoofstock department. Mallory looks forward to this trip every year; to reconnect with nature and share the love of the sea with new and returning participants. She is CPR/First Aid certified and FEMA certified in incident command systems. She’s traveled to over 15 countries and recently spent a month in the Philippines working on a reintroduction conservation program on the Visayan warty pig. If she’s not doing something with animals, she can usually be found singing or dancing- so be prepared for a possible karaoke or dance party!
Mallory has her Bachelor of Science in animal science (pre-vet) with a minor in zoology from California State Polytechnic University-Pomona 2012.
Olivia Walton (she/her)
Olivia currently works as an education coordinator for the St. Croix Environmental Association in the U.S. Virgin Islands where she grew up. Before moving back home to the island of St. Croix, she received a degree in Natural Resources and Marine Biology from Cornell University, spent time as a Montessori teacher, did graduate research with elementary schools in the Bahamas, became a certified National Geographic Educator, and explored over 25 countries.
Olivia has a B.S. from Cornell University in Natural Resources and a marine biology distinction in research. She is finishing up a M.S. from University of New Haven in environmental science and education.
Polly Diffenbaugh (she/her)
STARS TO SEA 3 LEADER
Polly loves to be outside and connected with nature. She first came to VSI as a student in the Project Dragonfly Earth Expeditions course in 2021 and then returned that same year to join a Stars to Sea trip. She could not stay away from Bahia for long! When not describing the joy one can feel swimming with whale sharks, sea lions and each other, she is a teacher educator and lecturer at the Stanford Teacher Education Program. Polly teaches pre-service teachers how to teach science and to increase their own sense of wonder about the world. She also loves to draw and nature journal her experiences. Polly is a Certified Emergency Response Team member for her community and used to be a professional lifeguard and swim instructor.
Polly holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biological Sciences and a Master’s of Art in Science Education from Stanford University. She is currently pursuing a second Master’s of Art in Conservation Biology from Miami University and becoming a Certified Interpretive Guide through the National Association of Interpretation.
Scott Lenhart (he/him)
STARS TO SEA 1 LEADER/SUPPORT
Scott grew up on the shores of Lake Erie looking out at the horizon regularly in wonder and awe. He and his wife, Tricia, started their professional careers in Baltimore, MD where Scott was a teacher as well as a part-time education aide at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. They currently reside in Youngstown, Ohio where Scott has continued his career as an 8th grade science teacher and coach.
Scott holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Elementary Education from Youngstown State University in Ohio, a Master’s of Art in Education- from Walsh University, and a Masters of Art in Teaching in Biological Sciences from Miami University.
For more information about our programs please send us an e-mail at [email protected].