Staff Members


“Asombro” is the Spanish word for “wonder,” which is exactly what the Asombro Institute’s programs bring to the thousands ofchildren and adults who participate each year. The Asombro Institute for Science Education (formerly the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to increasing natural science literacy through engaging, place-based education.


To achieve this mission, we currently serve more than 22,000 K-12 students and 1,500 adults in New Mexico and West Texas with inquiry-based, science education programs each year. Programs take place in classrooms, schoolyards, and at the 935-acre Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park site located north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.


Learn more about our programs that engage students in hands-on, scientific research by watching the video below.



Staff Members



Stephanie Bestelmeyer, Ph.D.
Executive Director
As the first paid employee of the Asombro Institute for Science Education in 2000, Steph has been thrilled to help Asombro develop into a leader in K-12 science education. Steph has a Ph.D. in Biology from Colorado State University as well as a B.S. in Biology and minor in Teaching from the University of California, San Diego. Her favorite thing about working at Asombro is seeing students’ imagination and interest spark when they participate in an Asombro program. Outside of work, Steph loves hiking, running, reading, going to plays, and traveling, most often with her husband, son, and dog.
Kelly Sayanagi
Education Director
Kelly joined Asombro in 2019 and is excited everyday she gets to share her love of science with students. Kelly grew up playing in the mountains of Northern New Mexico before heading to the University of New Mexico to study biology. She spent six years as an environmental educator in classrooms around Albuquerque and on the banks of the Rio Grande, training students to collect and analyze data to understand how local environments are changing. Kelly returned to UNM to further her own understanding of our changing landscapes and earned her Master’s degree in biology researching the impacts of climate change on the Rio Grande cottonwood trees.  As an avid hiker and backpacker she loves the opportunity to explore new parts of the Land of Enchantment, but when she’s not teaching or hiking, Kelly is often found knitting or playing the cello.
Ryan Pemberton
Program Leader
Ryan grew up in north-central Texas before attending the University of Georgia to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Forest Resources in Forestry and one in Wildlife & Fisheries Biology. He then went back to University of Georgia to earn his Master of Natural Resources in Environmental Education. He has also worked for Nature Centers teaching all ages about the wonders that can be found in their own backyards and using nature to teach science concepts. Ryan joined the Asombro Institute for Science Education in August 2015. When he is not working, Ryan can be found reading, birding, fishing, or hiking with his dog.
Abi Miller
Program Leader
Abi started at the Asombro Institute in August of 2019. Abi grew up in Austin, Texas before attending Colorado State University where she completed degrees in Forest Management and Natural Resource Management. Throughout college, she worked as an environmental educator for a small nonprofit run through CSU and discovered her passion for sharing her appreciation for nature with others. After graduating, Abi continued working in environmental education at Rocky Mountain National Park where she loved working with a team of rangers, educators, and researchers to develop field trips and other educational programs. Abi is excited to experience New Mexico’s diverse outdoor opportunities through hiking, camping, swimming, backpacking, and hammocking. When not exploring nature, she can be found reading, cooking, and listening to live music.
Gabriela Franco
Science Educator
Gabriela is thrilled to share her love of the desert and science with the community.  She grew up in El Paso, Texas, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology and found a love of field research while part of an undergraduate research program at the Indio Mountains Research Station near Van Horn. Gabriela continued on to complete a Master of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Theory in 2015. Her thesis focused on the Ecological Features of the Greater Earless Lizard, she spent many weekends in the field collecting data from pitfall trap arrays and weather stations. She has coordinated mobile museum outreach programs and has 7 years of teaching experience, including public programming for all ages, K-12 classroom visits, and the college-level classroom and laboratory. Gabriela joined Asombro in 2021, and feels like she finally found her dream career. Her favorite thing about working at Asombro is being able to share her passion for our Chihuahuan Desert.


Board Members

Gene Gant
Gene was primarily raised in a small town in Kansas. He graduated from Wichita State University in 1972 with a BBA in Economics. Gene retired as an US Army Air Defense Artillery Officer in 1990. He then worked in the corporate world until turning 66 when he figured there were better things to do with his time. Gene’s main interest now is doing what he can to help students with their education. In addition to serving on Asombro’s Board, Gene is also currently serving on the NM Public Education Commission, NM Public School Capital Outlay Council, NM State Library Commission, Boys and Girls Club Board of Directors, LCPS Foundation, and several committees for the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce. Gene also served eight years on the LCPS Board of Education.
Justin Van Zee - President
Justin Van Zee
Vice President
Justin works at the USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range as a Soils Biologist in the National Wind Erosion Research Network group, and has been developing rangeland vegetation and soil monitoring methodologies since the mid 1990s. Since 2008 he has collaborated with scientists in Mongolia to develop a national rangeland monitoring system. He deeply believes in service and giving back to the community, and in promoting development of critical thinking skills through exploration, activity, and experimentation in nature. Justin has been volunteering for the Asombro Institute since 1995, assisting staff with curriculum development, teaching at public events, and implementing site development projects at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park.
Donna Yargosz
After teaching for more than 30 years, Donna takes pleasure in giving back to the community alongside people she thinks are terrific. She helps with field trips, classroom lessons, public events, and teacher workshops, as well as translating materials into Spanish and creating new materials.
Mark Sechrist - Secretary
Mark Sechrist
Mark is an archaeologist who has worked in southern New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and western Texas since 1986. He joined the Asombro board in 2003 because he believes in and is inspired by the success of its mission to bring science education to students through hands-on field experiences.

Gil Tellez
Board Member
Gil is a Master Electrician and Outside Sales Representative at Resource Group. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but was raised in Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley. Gil has served as Vice President of the National Electrical Contractors Association, as board member for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee for electricians, as well as a board member for the new Electrical Golf Association. Whether it is hunting, fishing, camping or motor sports, Gil loves the outdoors and has a strong belief that children who spend time outdoors are healthier in body and mind. Gil contributes his time and knowledge to further the mission of the Asombro Institute and its dedication to increasing scientific literacy.