Whether she is hiking a 1,000-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail or setting the standard for future environmental informatics majors in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Laura Puckett is a trailblazer.

Puckett, selected as the 2019 Outstanding Senior in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, has found her niche in the relatively new field of environmental informatics. Excelling in the discipline calls for an aptitude for using quantitative tools to unlock new information about ecosystems and environmental changes — as well as a passion for protecting and preserving our natural resources.

“A lot of people in the environmental sciences are interested in the field study aspects of research,” Puckett said. “But with so many existing large environmental datasets, there’s also a demand for people who can process the data and draw conclusions from it. The field of environmental informatics combines statistics, data science, and ecology to study environmental systems.”

Assistant Professor Quinn Thomas said that Puckett represents the vision of what an environmental informatics major can be: “When the department created the major five years ago, we wanted to give students the opportunity to learn and practice both data analytics and the science of the environment. Laura excels at the computer side of research as well as having an understanding of how environmental systems operate.”

Puckett was hired to work on Thomas’ research team for several semesters, assisting with computational needs for different ongoing projects each semester to improve the ability to forecast the future of forest and freshwater ecosystems.

“In one of the projects, Laura played a critical role in an NSF-sponsored study focused on forecasting drinking water quality at a reservoir in the Roanoke area,” Thomas said. “The study is developing forecasts that, in the initial phase, used NOAA weather forecasts for a 30-square mile region as weather predictions for a specific location. Laura’s work has improved the accuracy of the weather forecasts used in the water quality forecasting by statistically adjusting the large-scale forecast, based on historical weather data at the reservoir, to be more specific to the location.”

Thomas said that Puckett has a particular ability to take a task and run with it: “She’s done a range of very computationally intensive problems with a high degree of independence. I can give a general direction and she will figure out how to proceed with the work, which is very impressive.”

Puckett’s capacities at self-direction were reflected when she was selected for Harvard University’s prestigious Harvard Forest Summer Research Program in Ecology. Students participate in an 11-week program focused on independent projects researching the effects of human and natural influences on a forest ecosystem.

“I was studying background tree mortality on a series of long-term forest plots,” Puckett said. “I collected information about recently dead trees and incorporated that with the growth records to model competition and estimate the extent that competition was a driver of tree mortality.”

Puckett, who grew up in Radford, Virginia, is an avid hiker who spends her free time working as a trail maintenance supervisor for 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail maintained by the Outdoor Club at Virginia Tech. Trained in wilderness first aid, Puckett has led trips on the trail and logged two extended stretches on the “AT” — an 1,100-mile trek from Georgia to Pennsylvania and an 800-mile hike from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire.

“My passion for hiking definitely goes hand-in-hand with my interest in environmental informatics,” she said. “The reason I’m on this career path is because I care about understanding and protecting the natural world. Living in the woods for months at a time has taught me a lot about forest ecosystems that would be impossible to pick up in class.”

“It’s been easy to feel at home at the College of Natural Resources and Environment,” Puckett said, when asked to summarize her time at Virginia Tech. “I especially like that the professors care so much. Their hobbies and past experiences seem to fit in with how they’ve found their fields. It makes learning more interesting when you know they are so involved with the subjects they’re teaching.”

In the fall, Puckett will be starting a Ph.D. in ecological and environmental informatics at Northern Arizona University.

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