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.
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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: