The University of Vermont was undergraduate Kunal Palawat’s (’18) second choice school, but he made the decision to come to UVM as an environmental sciences major in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. He now acknowledges it was the best decision he could have made.
“The relative smallness of UVM and the Rubenstein School helped me to seek out faculty in the School and across campus to work with on research projects in my interest area,” said Kunal who minored in soil science and plant biology. “I might not have found the same amazing research opportunities at my bigger first choice school in California.” At UVM, he focused his course work and research in biogeochemistry, ecology, and soils to dig deeper into his passion for agriculture and food systems science.
Kunal grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, where his interest in the environment spurred him to become president of his high school’s environmental club and to volunteer hundreds of hours at a local arboretum, where he shared his enthusiasm for ecology and gardening with school-age children. He became the youngest member of his town’s environmental commission and contributed to sustainability policies and projects in his community and high school. His efforts earned him the Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Civic Contribution his senior year in high school.
Grappling with his decision to come to UVM his first year, Kunal sought the support of his first-year advisor, Marie Vea-Fagnant in the Rubenstein School Student Services Office. She encouraged him to get involved in the School, on campus, and in research.
“Marie proved to me that I could have a place at UVM and helped to set me up for success,” said Kunal. “I turned it around and became a support system for other students.”
In particular, Kunal supported other students of color at UVM and in the Rubenstein School, where he helped host events to build community. As a part of the Diversity and Equity Assessment Team, Kunal critically analyzed equity in the School and helped give voice to student opinions and experiences. He facilitated focus groups on the experiences of students of color as part of a research study by Rubenstein School senior Sonya Buglion-Gluck.
“I hope my work supporting students in the Rubenstein School has made a positive difference in the community,” said Kunal. “I want to make sure that every student has the opportunity to craft a home in Rubenstein and that issues of inequity are discussed with every environmental issue brought up at the University.”
Kunal introduced new and prospective students to campus as a tour guide for UVM Undergraduate Admissions, an Undergraduate Orientation leader, and a resident advisor in UVM’s sustainability learning community residence hall. There, he engaged first-year students in environmentally sustainable practices and dialogue on social justice and diversity. Awarded Resident Advisor of the Year, Kunal also received a community builder’s award from the Mosaic Center for Students of Color.
During his time at the residence hall, Kunal applied his passion for growing things to building and managing garden beds. He involved other students in raising more than fifty different kinds of fruits, vegetables, and flowering plants.
As a Rubenstein School Steward, Kunal helped to organize School events and service projects and provided students with advice and help with resumes. He tutored environmental sciences students in chemistry and became a teaching assistant in NR 1, the introductory course taken by all first-year Rubenstein School students, as well as ENSC 130 Global Environmental Assessment and NR 140, an environmental statistics course.
Kunal connected with faculty and graduate students in the School and across campus and immersed himself in laboratory, field, and data analysis research. While maintaining greenhouse plants, running scientific instruments, analyzing soil and plant samples, synthesizing data on agricultural nitrogen sources in the tropics, he developed the skills and precision of a research scientist.
He became intensely involved in research on climate change with Rubenstein School Professor Carol Adair. As part of a project examining the role of soil microbes in decomposition on forest blowdown sites, he learned how to conduct carbon isotope studies and soil density fractionation in Professor Adair’s terrestrial biogeochemistry lab at the Aiken Forestry Sciences Laboratory.
“I was proud to be entrusted to use the lab equipment on my own,” said Kunal, who also became adept at analyzing samples using a mass spectrometer in Professor Andrea Lini’s laboratory in UVM’s Department of Geology.
Kunal spent a summer interning with Professor Adair on a Vermont EPSCoR project assessing the resilience of riparian sites to extreme weather events. Upside-down in soil pits, he installed dozens of sensors to measure carbon dioxide, oxygen, and soil characteristics.
The internship rolled into an academic year-long independent study. He and biological sciences major Colleen Yancey (’18) collected soil cores from the field sites and simulated a climate change-caused flooding event in the lab. They assessed enzymes, microbes, and nitrogen, in the soils after flooding. Their data will be part of a larger climate change model developed by the EPSCoR team.
“The highlight from my research experience has been crafting a project, studying riparian zones, from scratch,” said Kunal. “Everything from sampling design to literature review to field collection to lab work has been my responsibility. I have learned so much going through the process that a researcher would.”
Kunal also took advantage of service-learning opportunities at UVM. In soil science courses taught by Professors Don Ross and Deborah Neher of UVM’s Plant and Soil Science Department, Kunal gained additional experience conducting lab work in soil chemistry, microbiology, and water quality. The work contributed to student service-learning projects that assisted local farmers and business owners in Vermont.
“My research experiences have allowed me to deepen my knowledge about a topic that I am passionate about, even further than what is touched on in class,” said Kunal. “I got hands-on experience, witnessing the nutrient cycles in the field and lab that I study in my books. I have been able to meet and learn from amazing faculty, staff, and other students and grow my network and support system in the fields I love.”
Kunal, who graduated within three years instead of four and received the prestigious Kidder Medal at UVM Commencement, sees graduate school in his future and just might attend his former first choice school in California after all! First, he plans to find a job working with people, plants, and soil to help him narrow down his career interests.
“I see 100,000 different ways to make change happen, whether it’s combating climate change, growing better food, or providing more supportive student experiences,” Kunal said.