“Asombro” is the Spanish word for “wonder,” which is exactly what the Asombro Institute’s programs bring to the thousands of children 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. - Asombro Institute Executive Director
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.
Marianne "Rink" Somerday - Asombro Institute Program Coordinator
Rink Somerday
Program Coordinator
Rink has served as Program Coordinator at the Nature Park since March 2003. She has a B.S. in Environmental Conservation from California University of Pennsylvania. After living in Colorado and doing environmental education for 10 years, Rink moved to Las Cruces to work for Asombro. She also works for H & R Block as a senior tax advisor and volunteers for the Girl Scouts teaching camping and outdoor skills. In her spare time she loves white water rafting, camping, and hunting with her husband and competing in dog agility.

Dakota Domínguez
Science Education Specialist
Dakota joined Asombro in September of 2018. He grew up in the Colorado Rockies near Denver and has deep family roots in New Mexico. He holds an interdisciplinary liberal arts degree focused in Environmental Studies and Western US History from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. After graduating, Dakota has worked in outdoor and environmental education in a variety of ways: as an outreach and volunteer coordinator with a Conservation District, an environmental educator in public schools, an interpretive ranger in Arches National Park and a wilderness leadership instructor in North Cascades National Park. When not at work doing what he loves, he enjoys wandering public lands in search of black rocks and animal bones.

Stephanie Haan-Amato
Science Education Specialist
Stephanie joined the Asombro Institute for Science Education in March 2012. She has a BA in Environmental Studies and Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz; an MS in Wildlife Science from New Mexico State University; and an MA in Education from New Mexico State University. Stephanie worked as a biologist for several years studying a variety of organisms, from giant sequoia trees to salamanders, and then she taught high school biology for three years. At Asombro, she feels lucky to be able to share the excitement of science with students and develop ways to improve students’ critical thinking skills and understanding. Stephanie likes running, swimming, cycling, hiking, reading, and spending time outside with her husband, two children, and dog.

Ryan Pemberton
Science Education Specialist
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.


Board Members

Justin Van Zee - President
Justin Van Zee
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.

Gene Gant
Vice President
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.
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.
Donna Yargosz - Treasurer
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.

Gil Tellez
Board Member
Gil is a Master Electrician, qualifying party and Project Manager for B & H Mechanical Inc. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but was raised in Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley. Gil is currently Vice President of the National Electrical Contractors Association, a 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.

Cara Rotan
Board Member
Cara has lived in the Mesilla Valley her entire life. She grew up in an agricultural family with ties in the pecan industry. Currently, she works as a District Purchasing Assistant for Crescent Electric Supply Company, handling two branches for Las Cruces, NM and El Paso, TX. She has her Bachelors of Fine Arts degree from New Mexico State University with an emphasis in Photo/Graphics. In her spare time, she creates logos, produces photographic imagery, and works on custom design orders for family and friends.