Meet the Board

Who we are

Friends has grown into a 1000+ member organization with a vital active Board committed to serving the membership and supporting the Arboretum staff to further the Arboretum’s mission of connecting people to plants.

What we do

The strength of the Friends lies in its participants’ willingness to support the Arboretum with time, expertise, and financial contributions. Board members collaborate with the community and the Arboretum leadership to meet the organization's strategic objectives. The Board encourages and values input from the membership, acts as advocates and ambassadors for the organization, and facilitates committees and working groups that focus on fundraising and strategic initiatives. 

2018-19 Board Goals

  • Celebrating National Public Gardens Day with special events
  • Collaborating on a new Santa Cruz Garden Tour fundraiser
  • Reviving of a Garden docent program
  • Increasing revenue for Hummingbird Day
  • Supporting South African Garden renovations

 How to Join

Any one member, staff or community member is eligible to join the Board.

Interested participants can begin the process at anytime by completing this short application

Questions may be directed to Amber Burke at

Bylaws of the Friends of the Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Friends Board Members, 2018-2019

Stephanie Nielsen, President

Maura Connolly, Vice President

Julia CowellSecretary
Campus Representative
Martin Quigley
At-large members:

Jan Biegenzahn

Marisa Gomez

Susan Leo
Bill Ruskin
Alison Tassio

Science Advisory Council Members

Dr. Linda Anderson, Chair, UC Santa Cruz 
Dr. Kat Anderson, USDA, UC Davis
Dr. Jean Langenheim, UC Santa Cruz
Dr. Michael Loik, UC Santa Cruz
Dr. Bruce Lyon, UC Santa Cruz
Dr. Todd Newberry, UC Santa Cruz
Dr. Jarmila Pittermann, UC Santa Cruz 
Dr. Matt Ritter, Cal Poly, SLO
Dr. Barry Sinervo, UC Santa Cruz
Dr. Lincoln Taiz, UC Santa Cruz  
Dr. Michael Vasey, SF State Univ.
Jim Velzy, UC Santa Cruz


Jan Biegenzahn
Jan has been volunteering at the arboretum gift shop for the past two years. She considers the time she spends surrounded by the beauty of the arboretum and its community a lucky opportunity. Prior to her time at Norrie’s, the majority of her work life was spent in the legal field, most recently as a supervisor for the Superior Court of California in Santa Cruz. Jan is a life long learner who enjoys adding to her understanding of the language of plants through her work at the Arboretum. Jan’s time spent in public service and working with groups of people toward improving relations in all directions will be an asset.

Maura Connolly, Vice President
Maura received her BA from Wake Forest University in 2014 and currently works as volunteer coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, as well as part time for two other local nonprofits (Bike Santa Cruz County and Friends Outside). As volunteer coordinator, she recruits and manages both long-term and event specific volunteers, and provides event support and other administrative assistance as needed. She also provided event support. Maura is looking forward to putting her knowledge of the organization to use.  She’s well plugged into the Santa Cruz County nonprofit community.  Her event planning experience and youthful energy will be a great asset.

Julia Muennich Cowell, Secretary
Julia and her husband moved to Santa Cruz from Chicago in June, 2010. Gardening there was quite the challenge with a 100 degree range in temperature over a year. The Cowells learned to appreciate the structure of dormant plants in winter, thrilled with the first plants of spring, enjoyed many prairie natives all summer and admired the brilliant colors of the Midwestern autumn. She is the executive editor of The Journal of School Nursing, the research journal of the National Association of School Nurses. Her volunteer services have included chairing the Board of Directors of the Visiting Nurse Association Foundation of Chicago, a $50 million foundation dedicated to community health services, to volunteering at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. While her professional life has been in nursing practice and nursing education and research, her love of gardening comes from childhood. Growing up in Southwestern Ohio, her father was an avid gardener and some of the happiest days of her youth were mowing a 30 acre field of bluegrass. She participated in the volunteer training at the UCSC Arboretum in 2010 and has been weeding in the California Native Garden. She has chaired or the Arboretum Events Committee and participates in the Meet & Greet on week-ends. She has a BSN from the University of Cincinnati, a MSN in public health nursing from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and a PhD in public policy analysis from UIC. She reports that while an amateur in gardening, she has organizational skills that can contribute to the arboretum.

Marisa Gomez
Marisa is Education Coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, responsible for creating and leading educational programs for the public and youth groups. She was inspired to get more involved with the Arboretum while participating in the California Naturalist program in 2018. Marisa has a B.A. in English & Comparative Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing from San Jose State University and is experienced in event planning, social media, graphic design, curriculum building, and California's Next Generation Science Standards. She enjoys using foraged materials to create natural dyes, tapestries, and baskets, with an emphasis on using invasive materials and repurposing items such as kitchen waste.

Susan Leo
Susan Leo. Naturalist, birder, gardener, sports fan, washtub bass player. Spouse, friend, mother, grandmother. Docent at Natural Bridges, California Naturalist, retired minister. Lover of most things musical and creative. Unabashed inquirer and respectful iconoclast. Dreamer, schemer, team player, and hard worker. New to town, loving the Arboretum, and ready to serve.

Stephanie Nielsen, President
Stephanie Nielsen fell in love with the Arboretum on her first visit in 2006.  She has served on the Board since 2013.  She loves all plants and connecting people to plants.  She completed her California Naturalist certificate in 2015.  Stephanie has worked at UCSC in the Information Technology Services Division. She has extensive experience in project and business systems analysis, and software and web development. She has a B.A. in Economics. She and her husband, a physics professor at UCSC, live at Ranch View Terrace, overlooking the Arboretum and its eucalyptus grove.

Bill Ruskin
Bill Is a registered professional forester who holds a BS from UC Berkeley in Conservation of Natural Resources and a MS from UC Davis in Agronomy and Range Science. He has worked for the Bureau of Land Management as a conservation planner, botanist, environmental review team member, and for Calfire as a forester, administrative, operations and camp division chief. Bill was rare plant coordinator for the California Native Plant Society, Sanhedrin chapter, and a private forestry consultant in Monterey County.  He has expressed interest in leadership and board development, special events, membership development, and is equipped to advise on collections and outreach, as well as environmental education and internship development.  We are delighted to welcome Bill to the community.

Alison Tassio
Alison has been a frequent visitor to the Arboretum since moving to Santa Cruz twelve years ago. Her professional experience includes work at multiple retail/commercial nurseries in Berkeley, Oakland and Los Gatos, managing the Smith and Hawken Berkeley nursery, which focused on unusual, hard-to-find plants and California native plants. Alison plans to continue her valuable work on the Arboretum Marketing committee.