A bucket, a shovel, and bug spray. The tools of Raina Fitzpatrick’s current trade may not your typical ones, but that’s because she doesn’t work a typical job. A soil sciences technician for the University of Vermont’s ecology department, Fitzpatrick can most often be found out and about on campus, collecting samples to take back for testing.
“Basically,” says the chemistry major and environmental studies minor, “I am either hiking up mountains or in the lab running enzyme activity assays, doing inorganic nitrogen extractions, using a CN686 analyzer to measure the relative amounts of carbon and nitrogen in the samples, or working with others in the general space on various projects [on any given day].”
It’s work that has serious implications for the state of the natural environment. All the assays, extractions, and analyses are in service of a singular goal: to see—if not in real time, then just about as close as you can get to it—the impact of global warming on what she calls the “elemental distribution” of the earth.
“[As someone who is] interested in how the environment responds to anthropogenic climate change and the introduction of pollutants,” says Fitzpatrick, who co-chaired the Committee for Environmental Responsibility her senior year, “a job that explores how soil nutrient levels respond to climate change [was perfect for me.]”
Perfect—but potentially stressful. A recent trip to Colorado produced some particularly concerning data.
“In alpine environments, like the high-elevation sites where we were doing sampling, the growing season is quite short, so plants put all their resources into making just a few weeks of flowering count—they put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak,” she says. “But when the snow melt comes too early, as it has been doing for the past few years, the flowers bloom early. While this isn’t an issue in of itself, the rain doesn’t come until later on in the season—and, because of this, we watched a lot of plants die of thirst.”
Seeing climate change claim victims firsthand has only motivated Fitpatrick to step up her professional efforts to mitigate its ill effects further. Her goal for now, she says, “is to try and make existing models used by ecologists to predict future effects of climate change even more effective.”
“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series reporting on the post-collegiate plans of recent Haverford graduates.
Photo: Hefting a heavy backpack, Raina Fitzpatrick ’18 summits a mountain after a hard day of hiking. Photo courtesy of Raina Fitzpatrick ’18.