For senior Brittany Christensen, a passion for the environment has led to a commitment to restoring natural spaces for everyone to access.

“My interest in restoration comes from wanting to create and protect pockets of natural space where everyone can experience the beauty of nature,” said Christensen, who grew up in Virginia Beach. “My big picture goal is to understand the many complex aspects of environmental issues and find solutions that help people and the environment.”

The environmental resources management major’s efforts to understand and participate in restoration challenges and her commitment to helping people access natural environments have led to her selection as the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s 2020 Outstanding Senior.

“Brittany, quite simply, exemplifies an outstanding student and is very deserving of this award,” said John Seiler, Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “She has a strong academic record and has been involved in numerous extracurricular activities and volunteer work, ranging from beekeeping to the restoration of Stroubles Creek.”

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Among Christensen’s many extracurricular efforts were two summers as a volunteer at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach. She served first as an environmental education instructor for elementary and middle school groups visiting the park, and then returned the following year to help map invasive plant species. In that role, Christensen used GPS technology to record invasive species cover in dune, marsh, and forest habitats.

“The wildlife director had a program for invasive species mapping, and by that time I had taken dendrology and had worked in the Hahn Horticultural Garden on campus for a year, so I was already practiced in species identification,” said Christensen, who has dual minors in urban forestry and watershed management. “It was nice to use my skills to go out and survey large tracts of land, where you can feel completely lost in the wilderness.”

Throughout the summer, Christensen identified some 20 invasive species, though a central focus was on phragmites reeds, an invasive plant that thrives in coastal areas, where it threatens native vegetation.

“The purpose of the invasive species mapping program was to get a handle on where all of the plants were located, to better pinpoint where they might spread,” Christensen explained. “That way, conservation scientists can assess management strategies for how to control the spread of those plants.”

Christensen went on to secure a role as a research assistant to Associate Professor Susan Day, helping to collect ground data around Blacksburg for a research project on urban forest hydrology typologies, while also assisting on a project focused on urban soil remediation.

“For the forest work, we were going out into the field and measuring all of these different dimensions of ground cover contingencies and then seeing if we could link that with aerial photography data,” she explained. “If we found out that ground observation and satellite imagery were linked, we wouldn’t have to do as much groundwork in the future, which would speed along our ability to analyze where to focus our efforts in urban areas.”

More recently, Christensen has been involved in the Virginia Big Tree Program, which maintains a register of the largest specimens of each tree species in the state. Coordinated by Associate Professor Eric Wiseman, the program is affiliated with American Forest’s National Register of Champion Trees.

“The highlight was going out into the field and doing some measuring,” Christensen said. “I probably measured 30 trees, and I love my work. The participants are so passionate about it, and that inspires me, too.”

As she approaches graduation, Christensen is hoping to find work in restoration and conservation efforts to gain real-world experience in the field before starting an advanced degree.

“I think some time in the field will help me figure out where I want to focus my studies,” Christensen said. “Ultimately, I’d like to be able to give back in some way and help make sure that everyone has access to natural spaces.”

Written by David Fleming

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