Rubenstein School Environmental Sciences major Jessica Mailhot (’16), a naturally talented artist, creatively captured several passions – birds, research, and art – in her four years at the University of Vermont.
Jess, a native of west-central Massachusetts, had a mission when she came to UVM. “I wanted to study how climate change impacts animals and other species and learn about solutions to our environmental dilemmas,” she said.
She chose to follow the conservation biology and biodiversity focus track in the Environmental Sciences major in the Rubenstein School and concentrate on studying species from an ecosystem perspective. She also minored in Geospatial Technologies in the School.
Jess immersed herself immediately in research the summer of her first year through an EPSCoR Research on Adaptation to Climate Change (RACC) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. At the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory on Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront, Jess studied the proliferation of harmful blue-green algae populations in the lake. She assisted former graduate student Peter Isles and former postdoctoral researcher Courtney Giles to collect water samples and identify species of phytoplankton and cyanobacteria in Missisquoi Bay.
She encored as an REU intern the following summer, this time at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, where she worked with mentor ecologist Dr. Clive Jones. Focusing on her passion for birds, Jess statistically analyzed bird and nest sizes using data from scientific literature for species worldwide.
“I found that nest volume correlated to slightly larger than the size of the nest builder,” Jess said. “But for those birds that seek out secondary nests built by another bird, they tend to choose relatively larger nests.” Jess was chosen to present her analyses and findings at the Sigma Xi International Student Research Conference in Phoenix, Arizona.
Her passion for birds and research led her to yet another experience as a bird banding intern the summer of her junior year. With the Institute for Bird Populations in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jess assisted with research to learn more about timing and location of bird species during breeding and migration.
Jess received an Ian A. Worley Award for Creative and Independent Thinking made possible by the generosity of Gary Simpson ('76) to the UVM Environmental Program. With support from the award, Jess intertwined research, birds, and art into her senior thesis project, the culmination of her focus on impacts of climate change on bird migration patterns. Choosing the Blue-headed and the Red-eyed vireos as her subjects, she used GIS and statistical modeling software to examine eight years of temperature trends and spring arrival dates for the two species from citizen science data on eBird. Showcasing her artistic bent, she painted two large pieces of artwork that beautifully portray the birds and their changing patterns of migration to regions in Vermont. She presented her research and artwork at the annual UVM Student Research Conference in April.
Beyond her research experiences, Jess, who received a School award for outstanding service both junior and senior years, took a leadership role on campus and in the Rubenstein School. A resident and engaged participant in the student-run substance- and alcohol-free residential hall at UVM, she tutored students at the UVM Writing Center. She participated in a UVM Alternative Spring Break community service trip to Biscayne and Everglades National Parks in Florida and led a second trip to Biloxi, Mississippi to work with community partners on trail maintenance, house renovation, and shelter animal care.
As a Rubenstein School steward, she conducted building tours for prospective students, parents, and guests; held peer mentoring office hours; and helped to organize School events. As event coordinator for the student Wildlife and Fisheries Society, she set up professional development workshops, brought in guest speakers for career events, and coordinated wildlife-related volunteer events in the community through the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I appreciated the sense of community in the Rubenstein School but also the large, diverse University community with all its opportunities for campus involvement and beyond,” shared Jess, who graduated in May. “UVM’s location near Burlington, Lake Champlain, and the mountains is a sweet spot in many ways!”
Jess will continue to follow her passions. At Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Conway, New Hampshire, she will conduct bird research and begin applying to graduate schools to pursue further studies of birds.