Alana Thurston ’16 is passionate about environmental science and will now follow that passion into the field. The environmental biogeochemistry section of the Patrick Center for Environmental Research, a research department within Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences, has offered Thurston a joint position as a laboratory and field technician. In this new role, she will expand on her three-year experience as an environmental chemistry lab assistant under Associate Professor of Chemistry Helen White, the woman who changed and inspired Thurston’s long-term plans.
“Prior to working with Helen White, I was dead-set on pursuing biology,” says Thurston, who also writes a blog about her scientific endeavors. “However, through studying the lasting effects of crude oil in the Gulf Coast [with her], I began to see how chemical techniques and analysis could be applied to environmental problems, which changed the trajectory of my studies.”
Thurston ended up majoring in chemistry, with a concentration in biochemistry and a minor in environmental studies. In order to broaden her knowledge of environmental science beyond her Bi-Co coursework, she applied to participate in the Semester in Environmental Science program at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), a private international institution affiliated with the University of Chicago and located in Woods Hole, Mass., where she received training in fieldwork, elemental analysis, and independent-research-project designing during her junior year.
Thurston is confident that the experience she acquired at both Haverford and the MBL will help her thrive in her new position. She will be preparing and processing samples from the National Ecological Observatory Network to measure for chlorophyll a, phosphorus, and isotope composition, among other things, and she will collect water, sediment, and plant samples from wetlands and streams in the Delaware and Anacostia rivers.
But the position offers one more perk: exposure to marsh and stream ecosystems. “The majority of my fieldwork has taken place in New England hardwood forests,” she says, “and so I was also hoping to gain experience in a new ecosystem during this time.”
She will experience another new ecosystem this summer, too, when she studies the impact of a warmer arctic climate on vegetation at a long-term ecological research site at the Toolik Lake field station in Alaska. She is part of a lab group that is trying to determine the adaptability of sedge plant populations in response to slight climate changes, which will help them make predictions about whether they could withstand increasingly warm temperatures. If not, they may be gradually replaced by shrubs—a process which, as documentation proves, has already started. Though this job was originally a six-month research position, Thurston was able to seek out extra funding to join the team for six weeks only, and, luckily, the Patrick Center was willing to postpone her first day of work so she could pursue this opportunity.
Thurston hopes that these diverse, new research experiences will help her determine which specific area of the field of environmental science she will eventually specialize in, in graduate school and beyond.
“Right now my studies and lab experiences are all over the place—ranging from studying the degradation of crude oil to the response of terrestrial fungi to warming temperatures,” Thurston says. “I hope that this experience will give me the chance to learn new techniques and make new connections, while also allowing me to reflect on the research I’ve done up until now and start making critical decisions on what I want to do in the future.”
“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series reporting on the post-collegiate plans of recent Haverford graduates.