Choosing a college was easy for Vermonter Kristen Switzer ’18. Her keen interest in animals, plants, and the environment drew her to visit UVM, where she discovered the Aiken Center, a LEED Platinum-certified green building and home to the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
“I toured Aiken and thought, ‘Wow, there’s some cool, exciting things happening here,’” said Kristen, who was offered a UVM Green and Gold Scholarship, including free tuition, as a top student at her high school in Rutland, Vermont. A lifelong central Vermont skier, she looked forward to skiing the state’s northern mountains.
Kristen majored in environmental sciences with a concentration in conservation biology and biodiversity and a minor in geography. She became an ambassador for the School as a Rubenstein Steward and took advantage of the many experiential learning opportunities the Rubenstein School has to offer. During her four years at UVM, she did three local environmental internships, studied abroad in England for a semester, assisted with faculty and graduate student research, and conducted her own honors thesis research at a UVM forest.
A UVM Honors College student, Kristen was hesitant about conducting research at first, until she met Rubenstein School Professor Tony D’Amato, a forest scientist, who frequently engages students in his research projects.
“I was iffy about research; it seemed too difficult and stressful, but I started working with Tony and found I love doing research,” said Kristen, who studied the impacts of climate on the growth of three tree species, part of a larger climate change experiment conducted by Tony’s PhD student Peter Clark. “Tony always had time to guide me through the research process. Now I know I want to be a researcher.”
Kristen received funding from a UVM Environmental Program summer research award. At the School’s Jericho Research Forest, she extracted 90 tree stem cores and measured the trees’ growth rings.
“I analyzed the data using statistical software programs,” said Kristen. “I found out which months of the year had the most influence climate-wise on tree growth over a time period.”
With support from a Rubenstein School Internship Fund award, Kristen gained additional research experience while gathering data on pollination patterns and behaviors of native bees on Vermont berry farms. Working with Rubenstein School PhD student Charlie Nicholson, a graduate fellow in the UVM Gund Institute for Environment, Kristen caught, pinned, and identified bee specimens and compiled data for analyses.
This experience led to further work with pollinators in the UVM Biology Department. She assisted PhD student Samantha Alger on studies of the effects of pathogens on bee populations. Kristen learned how to extract and analyze RNA viruses from bees and monitor bee colonies to study their behavior when exposed to viruses.
“I developed a passion for pollinators,” she said. “I also gained a greater appreciation for their significance in the environment and how important research is to help them survive.”
Kristen spent a summer working as a water quality intern with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation District in Rutland. At ten locations throughout Rutland County, she collected water samples to be tested for phosphorus, nitrogen, turbidity, and E. coli. She compiled data from the tests, wrote a report on the findings, and submitted it to the USDA.
“It was exciting to see water quality in my hometown improve from previous years,” said Kristen. “I saw how important regular monitoring can be to measure the effects of water policy changes.”
Another internship opportunity with the Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative provided Kristen with experience surveying urban trees in Winooski, Vermont. She gained skills in tree identification and measurement, mapping, and data entry into the USDA iTree database for local and national monitoring.
As part of the senior-year service-learning course, NR 206 Environmental Problem Solving and Impact Assessment, Kristen and her student team designed a pollinator garden for community partner Jon Turner of Wild Roots Farm in Bristol, Vermont.
“We actually had a real product to hand to Jon,” said Kristen. “We developed designs for permaculture beds that incorporated slope, sun angle, and plant species attractive to pollinators.”
Kristen expanded her Vermont horizons during a semester abroad at Newcastle University in England. She took geography courses to apply to her minor and toured France, Spain, and Switzerland.
After graduating from UVM with a Rubenstein School environmental sciences outstanding academic achievement award, Kristen continued to pursue her interest in research. At the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory, she worked with Professor Jason Stockwell and PhD student Natalie Flores. Kristen collected water samples, monitored air quality, and dissected fish for a study of the toxins associated with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Lake Champlain and Shelburne Pond.
“I was drawn to Natalie’s work because I am interested in the ways cyanobacteria affect bodies of water in Vermont and subsequently the health of organisms living in those ecosystems,” said Kristen, who plans to apply to graduate school this fall and has her sights set on western schools. She wants to conduct research in wildlife conservation or focus on her passion for pollinators.