Staff Members



“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.

Stephanie Haan-Amato
Assistant Director
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 Program Leader: Elementary Education
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.

Kim O’Byrne 
Science Education Program Leader: Special Projects
Kim is recently retired from Las Cruces Public Schools with 28 years in the New Mexico education system. Kim received her Bachelors and Masters in Agriculture and Extension Education from NMSU. As an agriculture science teacher, she chartered the FFA chapter at Mayfield. She also helped initiate the collaborative Guide Dogs for the Blind training program. She is a Golden Apple Fellow and a National Agriscience Ambassador Mentor Facilitator. Kim enjoys spending time with her family, travelling, and her grandchildren.

Emilia Linley 
Science Educator: Elementary
Emilia joined Asombro in August of 2019. She grew up splitting her time between Southern California and Northern New Mexico. She holds a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction as well as a BA in Cultural Communication Studies, both from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. After graduating, Emilia has worked in elementary education within Las Cruces and Gadsden public school districts. She has presented at numerous science conferences for educators in Southern New Mexico and has been recognized as a science educator with the Science Tools in the Classroom Fellowship Program. Emilia’s passion for science education has been a driving force in her curriculum and instruction in the public schools and at Asombro she is able to further share her passion for hands-on science education. When not at work Emilia enjoys spending time with her family, the culinary arts of baking and cooking dishes from various cultures and regions, camping, hiking, reading various forms of literature, and watching Anime, Korean Dramas, or British programming.


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.