Cornell Lab Mourns Courtney Wilson and Celebrates Her Life

By Nancy Trautmann, director of the Cornell Lab's Education program
September 15, 2013
Courtney Ruth Wilson, 1986-2013. Photo by Michelle Watkins. Courtney Ruth Wilson, 1986-2013. Photo by Michelle Watkins.
New self-paced course: Learn How to Identify Bird Songs, Click to Learn More

I first met Courtney Wilson in 2008, when she was an undergraduate helping science teachers learn to apply geospatial software in their teaching, a part of our Crossing Boundaries project. As we worked together over the next five years, Courtney became a valued colleague, a collaborator, and most of all a friend and endless source of enthusiasm and hope. Last week, Courtney’s friends in all walks of life were devastated to learn of her passing, on September 9, from a series of catastrophic neurological events. She was 27.

Courtney’s life was cut far too short, but she leaves a lasting legacy. Her infectious smile makes us smile too, even sometimes through our tears. She was a determined scholar who overcame dyslexia to excel and take great joy in learning and teaching. There was never a technical glitch she couldn’t troubleshoot or a complicated concept she couldn’t find a way to make understandable. Perhaps most importantly, her determination to make the world a better place gave us hope for the future and inspired all who crossed her path.

After graduating from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Courtney continued into a Crossing Boundaries internship in Brazil, where she applied her geospatial skills with a nonprofit that promotes sustainable use of the rainforest. Courtney later observed, “Traveling into the heart of the Amazon made me realize just how much is at stake. There are so many stakeholders from the local farmer, logger, rancher, local government officials, concerned indigenous community members, environmental organizations, world citizens and countless other individuals. Basically, if you live on planet Earth, you are a stakeholder and you are affected by decisions made in every corner of the world.”

Courtney Wilson and Nancy Trautmann preparing for takeoff in a small plane during their Kenya visit. Photo by Michelle Watkins.

After that summer, Courtney came to the Cornell Lab to help us develop a curriculum to inspire young people to care about conservation in their home communities and abroad. We found Courtney so passionate and skillful that her initial two-month position stretched to three invaluable years. During this time, I traveled to Kenya with Courtney, teachers, and project staff. Together we explored conservation issues and brainstormed how to create classroom activities that would motivate, educate, a nd inspire American students to care about wildlife and human societies they might never have the chance to see in person.

On the way to Kenya, flight cancellations forced Courtney and me to separate from the rest of the group and take a longer route. After 36 hours of travel without a bed or shower, we arrived in Nairobi, met the rest of the gang, and loaded into a Land Rover for a 6-hour drive to the Mpala Research Centre. The final hour was pitch black and on rough dirt roads that had us careening sideways and convinced that we were wandering aimlessly through the East African savannah. While shining a flashlight out the window, we were astonished to see what seemed like a million eyeballs glistening back at us through the brush. Courtney was giddy with excitement, forcing us to toss our worries aside and revel in the beauty and mystery of life in this amazing land.

In the time that she lived, Courtney dedicated herself to becoming a force for the planet.

In 2011, our reluctance to see Courtney leave Cornell was tempered by sharing her excitement about launching into graduate studies at the University of Michigan. She had just completed her master’s degree and was beginning doctoral work when her life was tragically cut short.

In the time that she lived, Courtney dedicated herself to becoming a force for the planet. There is little doubt that with her amazing dedication her impact would only have grown. In thinking about a fitting memorial, I find myself yearning to help other students follow in her footsteps. With that in mind, we are starting a fund dedicated to supporting travel and biodiversity-related curriculum development by undergraduate and graduate students collaborating with the Cornell Lab. If you are inspired to contribute, you can donate to her fund online (please note in the comments field that it is for the Courtney Wilson Fund) or send a check to Sean Scanlon, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850 (include Courtney Wilson Fund in the memo line).

Courtney touched everyone she knew. If you would like to share your thoughts or memories, please use the Comments section below. Thank you for helping to celebrate Courtney’s remarkable life and enduring legacy.

Further tributes to Courtney have been posted elsewhere:



  • John W. Fitzpatrick

    I speak for the entire Cornell Lab of Ornithology in (1) thanking Nancy Trautmann for adding to our appreciation of Courtney’s terrific energy and character with this posting, and (2) expressing — especially to Courtney’s parents — how utterly devastated we all were to learn that we’d all lost this wonderful woman so early in her life and career, with so much still ahead. Thankfully, Courtney did live long enough to impart, to a LOT of people, some amazing lessons of will, wonder, giving, caring, sharing, analysis, dedication to the planet, and above all, hope. She was a wonderful person to have around the Cornell Lab for those years of exploration and crossings of boundaries. None who knew her will ever forget her radiance, nor her passionate commitment to the planet and its people.

  • Rhiannon crain

    Courtney was one of the first people to make me feel welcome and at home when I joined the staff at the Lab. She was such an easy and wonderful person to be around and I am saddened she won’t be spreading that warmth far and wide for years to come, but I am grateful I had the chance spend a couple of years on the receiving end of her bright, welcoming smiles.

  • Bonnie Coffin

    Words can’t express our loss of one of the most intelligent and sweetest young women to ever bless our lives. As Nancy mentioned that her smile was very infectious and she always knew how to light up a room wherever she was. Our deepest sympathy goes out to her family and friends and just know that we feel very blessed to have been a part of Courtney’s life while she was with us.

  • Tina Phillips

    I did not directly work with Courtney, but that was the thing about Courtney, you didn’t need to work alongside her to know her. As others have noted, her wonderful spirit was infectious, and you couldn’t help but smile when Courtney was around. I remember too how thrilled she was about graduate school. She had been accepted to several schools and each week she would narrow down her choices with me over coffee. It was obvious to me that wherever she went she was going to leave an indelible mark. I was so saddened when I heard of her passing – she had so much to offer the world and everyone she came in contact with. Thank you Nancy and others for creating the fund to keep her spirit and legacy alive for others to benefit from. I am sure Courtney would have wanted that.

  • Nan Terry

    If longevity was based on the quality of the individual, Courtney would have had an extremely long life and we wouldn’t be mourning her passing at this all-too-early age. I worked with Courtney as a Crossing Boundaries teacher where her intellectual gifts were readily observed, but some of the best conversations that I shared with her were about her home and family. Clearly, she had been nutured and supported by a loving family and my thoughts are with them at this most difficult time. Additionally, I witnessed the support and mentoring that she received from her academic communities, most notably Jim, Nancy, and Mike from the Crossing Boundaries crew. So, I will keep them in my thoughts as well. Courtney made the most of her years and left the world better than she had found it – a goal to which we can all aspire.

  • Bill Hunter

    As a teacher who met Courtney through Crossing Boundaries, I was completely stunned to hear the news of her passing. She was an inspiring individual, with such an infectious smile that nobody could be in the room with her without smiling themselves. I was always amazed at how she could make a difficult and tedious task seem easy and fun, and how she could change the mood in the room simply by being there. She will always have a spot in my memory for that reason alone.

  • I met Courtney while I was an advisor to the Crossing Boundaries project and kept in touch with her ever since. I walked with her last year on the University of Michigan arboretum while I was in town working on a book. I’ll never forget the look on her face when we said farewell at the AAG in Los Angeles in April 2013: Always hopeful and looking forward to learning new things. The angels can confer her doctorate in Heaven.

  • Michelle Watkins

    Courtney consistently took the ordinary and made it extraordinary while making possible what often seemed impossible! As a Crossing Boundaries teacher, my ability to integrate technology and real world problem solving in the classroom grew exponentially thanks to her great instruction and collaboration with the CB Team. More importantly though, it’s Courtney’s example that has really changed my life! Her contagious enthusiasm, curiosity, bright insightful questions, compassion, and dedication to making a difference, along with her creativity, professionalism, kindness, hard work and “can do spirit” will always be sources of inspiration.

    Courtney celebrated the wonder and awe of being alive at every turn! One of my many enduring memories of Courtney will be of a rather ordinary moment in the middle of the night in Kenya (if there is such a thing). A simple trip to the restroom found us utterly awestruck by the brilliance of the starlight on the African savannah (and amazed by just how close those pachyderm droppings were to our abode). The metaphor of that moment is fitting as we venture ahead grateful for the bright and radiant light that Courtney will always be in our memories. In the midst of this utterly heartbreaking loss, thoughts, prayers and profound compassion are extended to her family, colleagues and friends who she clearly thought the world of!

  • Mary Winston

    When I got home and told my husband of Courtney’s passing and how much it upset me, he said “She’s already an angel…an angel that is there to show us what is important in life”.

  • Jim Murphy

    Courtney came into my Middle School classroom several years ago to field-test one of her creations for Crossing Boundries. Over a two-week period, she showed the power of GIS to adolescents and demonstrated the power of warmth and kindness as she taught her trade. The students delighted in her presence, followed her every cue, and took chances in the environment of unconditional acceptance that Courney provided. Not surprisingly, the project went extremely well and at the end of class on the final day, each class spontaneously gave her thunderous applause.

    In the years that I worked with Courtney, I learned GIS skills that have elevated my classroom experience but only because Courtney supported my own learning curve in the same way she treated everyone, with smiling encouragement, unbridled enthusiasm, and a belief that we can all make a difference. We all have lost a dear friend. We lost the part of Courtney that we want, her laughter, her smile, her uplifting spirit. We will never lose that part of Courtney that we truly need, the example that we are all in this together and that when we work as one, nothing is impossible.

    Thank you Courtney, rest in peace.

  • In the months before Courtney came to the Lab, Nancy described to us this wonderfully bright and enthusiastic student who had a knack for teaching complicated concepts; she thought she would be a perfect addition to the Lab’s Education program. Courtney was just barely out of college and I secretly thought, “She sounds just too amazing to be true.” I was wrong!

    Courtney came to the Lab on a temporary assignment, and within a month, I knew that “too amazing” couldn’t even begin to describe this dedicated young woman, whose perseverance could overcome any challenge. Her smile and spirit were inspirational. She was a joy to work with. Thankfully, her “temporary appointment” became a position that lasted for three years until she left for grad school. (At the time, I threatened to write her terrible recommendations in hopes that her applications would get rejected and she would have to stay… but in the end my threats were empty and Michigan became the fortunate place to snatch her from us.)

    During her time at the Lab, I had the pleasure of traveling with her to several education conferences, one of which was in San Francisco, where she grew up. To save money and trouble, we shipped the many boxes of brochures and conference supplies to her parent’s house. They had generously offered to bring the boxes to the convention center for us and help carry them in. Unfortunately, we soon learned that hand-delivering boxes from personal vehicles was frowned upon. To avoid any issues, and giggling like school girls, we ended up “sneaking” the supplies into the convention center within our suitcases over the course of the next few hours. It was wonderful to meet her parents and see the kind and generous people who helped shape Courtney into the fantastic woman that she was.

    I recall that when she missed her pets back home or in times of stress, I would invite her over to my house for “kitty cat time” and we’d chat over my purring cats. She was sweet, thoughtful, and kind. I never heard her say a negative word about anyone or anything. She didn’t see the glass “half full”- she simply saw it full. She was quick to smile and make a clever joke, and her laugh and was contagious. She bubbled with love for her family and her close friends at home. My heart goes out to them in their loss.

    How someone so full of life be gone? It feels staggering to me. Courtney truly was a one in a billion person. When I think about her beautiful personality, I realize that I’d like to be more like her; I’d like my daughter to be like her: fiercely determined but understanding and gentle, powerful yet kind, a wonderful blend of smart and serious but with a willingness to be silly, and optimistic in the face of challenge. I admire her, and I am lucky to have had the opportunity and joy of being her friend.

    Courtney, thank you, you live on in our hearts.

  • Ivel Orozco

    I have been working for three years coordinating environmental educational programs in Guadalajara, Mexico. I have promoted Birdsleuth International curricula in my city, and adapted the activities to different formal and non-formal programs. A few months ago, Nancy Trautmann invited me to attempt the Birdsleuth retreat at the Lab of Ornithology. Three weeks ago, I landed at Ithaca ready to enjoy and learn from what was coming. During the retreat I felt grateful and absolutely amazed with the place, the people I met, and the inspiring work of the Lab of ornithology staff. It was so enriching and stimulating, that the very last day I got in contact with my collaborators in Mexico because I couldn’t wait to get back to designing and promoting new projects. That same day I was aware that my whole experience was supported by the Courtney Wilson Fund. I could not feel more grateful and at the same time committed to Birdsleuth, to environment education, to birds, and to kids.

Cornell Lab Mourns Courtney Wilson and Celebrates Her Life