What They Learned: Sophia Wagner ’24

Wagner’s thesis and capstone project, a quilt featuring prints of native Pennsylvania plants, are both rooted in environmental justice.

Sophia Wagner ’24, who double majored in environmental studies and biology, says her experience at Haverford shifted the way she approaches learning science. Her concentration in peace, justice, and human rights, she says, influenced her to pursue both a capstone project and a thesis rooted in environmental justice. 

Working closely with Professor of Environmental Studies Jonathan Wilson, her advisor for both, Wagner closely studied climate change modeling and Pennsylvania’s forests to compile a list of native tree species that may be unlikely to survive in the commonwealth in the future. That capstone project, titled “Quilting Ecologies: Pennsylvania Tree Memorial Quilt Project,” is a tangible reminder of the species at risk and their importance. They are immortalized through a series of linoleum block prints on fabric Wagner sourced from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a tribute to Pennsylvania’s long history of quilting. 

Similarly, Wagner’s thesis, “Life in the Carboniferous Coal Swamp Forests: Reconstructing the Paleoecophysiology of the Extinct Horsetail Sphenophyllum,” draws on previous palaeobotanical research conducted by Wilson and past members of his lab. Using one of Wilson’s models, Wagner collected data from a fossilized horsetail plant to determine the hydraulic conductivity and drought resistance of the specific genus.

“[Professor Wilson] was instrumental in teaching me a wide array of topics to help me understand the geology, ecology, biophysics, and climatology of the Carboniferous Pennsylvanian period, which was 323.2 million to 298.9 million years ago,” Wagner says. “The group of scientists that he works with on this project have to utilize all of their skills to reconstruct the past, which I think is extremely powerful in looking at the same patterns from different lenses.”

Wagner says one of the main implications of her thesis is that models of past plants, especially those that have gone extinct, can tell us what might happen to our current ecosystems as climate change accelerates.

“The carboniferous coal swamps that our lab looked at resemble ever-wet forests similar to the Amazon basin or the cloud forest in Costa Rica. Climate change is shifting water availability, which may have dire consequences for specific highly water-conductive species,” Wagner says. Additionally, there are only so many fossils that we are able to draw data from, so it is important for researchers to continue gathering data in order to make the models more precise.”

Through November, the Castle Pines, Colorado native will be working in the field with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In that role, she will be engaged in river restoration and surveying native fish in Leavenworth, Washington. 

“Both projects have really helped guide me,” she says. “I really enjoy doing research and want to continue learning. I would love to perhaps go into academia or a conservation field in which I can teach and continue to do both field and lab research, but most importantly, I want to continue to explore and be out in nature.”

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.