Finding paths and breaking down barriers: Stories celebrating women in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment
One hundred years have passed since the first female undergraduates enrolled in Virginia Tech. To mark the occasion, the university is commemorating this anniversary throughout 2022. The College of Natural Resources and Environment is celebrating by sharing the stories of three women in the college — a student, a professor, and an alumna — who are finding their paths and leading the way for others in their fields.
Current student Sharon Dorsey: plover protector and social media influencer
On a barrier island off the coast of Long Island, Sharon Dorsey holds four piping plover chicks in her hand. Using her camera phone, the Baltimore native takes a short video, which she will upload to social media.
For Dorsey, the video served two purposes. First, it provided a daily record of the conservation field research she conducted monitoring the piping plover population on Fire Island this past summer with the Virginia Tech Shorebird Program.
The plover, a small-billed shorebird usually observed running to the sea’s edge and back, foraging for insects and crustaceans, is considered a critical species for revealing the health of a coastal ecosystem. The birds are a high priority for conservation groups and federal agencies.
“There is a whole field of human/wildlife conflict, and plovers epitomize that conflict,” explained Dorsey, a master’s student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “The sites we monitor are highly-visited beaches in the summer, and our task is to work with land managers to let them know when the summer chicks are hatching, so they can decide how to best protect the species from beachgoers.”
Creating and posting videos also allows Dorsey to share her work with friends and family members who have never seen a baby piping plover. And as a woman of color, she is able to broaden representation in the field of wildlife conservation.
“I like using social media to showcase the work I’m doing, from plover biology to nesting peers in the field,” she noted. “I’ve been inspired by a lot of social media accounts, and events like #BlackBirdersWeek really alerted me to just how many Black students are studying ornithology. Some of them are really engaged, doing bird walks or live talks, and really working to share information in a way that a broad audience can understand.”
Dorsey found her way to the college after working for an environmental consulting firm, where she participated in wetland rehabilitation and forest and stream conservation.
“With all of the habitats I was working in, I kept being curious about the animals I was seeing,” she explained. “I wanted to learn more about the wildlife side of these environments, so I decided to pursue a degree in a field that would help me understand how species interact with these landscapes.”
Dorsey aims to complete her master’s degree in 2023 and hopes to continue to share her passion for bird conservation by finding a future role that allows her to conduct research and provide outreach programs that foster community engagement and environmental conservation.
Assistant Professor Holly Kindsvater: role model for inclusive teaching and research
The lab philosophy page on Holly Kindsvater’s research website makes a unique statement: “Success in science looks different for every individual. We each need to identify what success means for ourselves, and then support each other in attaining that goal.”
That message is in keeping with a broader conversation of how students and faculty can collaborate effectively in conservation science, a conversation that Kindsvater encourages her students to consider.
“Whether it is Thoreau at Walden or John Muir walking through the Sierras, there is this mythos that to do conservation you must be the consummate naturalist that is at one with nature,” said Kindsvater, an assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “That’s great if you’re into that, but it’s not the only experience that is possible, and students who might not be as experienced in the outdoors might believe they don’t belong in this field.”
Kindsvater said that she intends for her lab to be an inclusive environment, one where academic accomplishments parallel the well-being of participating students.
“I have high expectations and high standards for my students, and we are going to be doing the best science that we can,” she said. “But I believe that if students are excited and empowered to do work that is aligned to their personal and academic goals, we’re going to do better research.”
Master’s student Hailey Conrad said that working in Kindsvater’s lab has been a standout experience during her time at Virginia Tech.
“I think Dr. Kindsvater puts a lot of thought into what her students’ interests and goals are, and she tries to design projects that will help them reach their goals,” said Conrad, who is studying reproduction data on summer flounder. “She’s good at meeting people where they are in terms of their evolution as researchers, and I really enjoy working with her.”
Kindsvater’s own research requires an unusual alignment of areas of expertise. With a background as a marine biologist focused on fisheries management and conservation, Kindsvater’s research focuses on exploring the ways in which the evolutionary histories of various species might impact a species’ capacity to adapt to changing environments.
“I am a fisheries biologist, and I come at questions about fisheries management and species conservation from the angle of understanding the unique biology of a species or lineage, and how that evolutionary history sets up a species to either be resilient to overfishing or climate change, or extra-sensitive to being lost.”
Kindsvater, who holds a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Yale, admits that studying marine fishes in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains seems incongruous, but like some of the species she studies, Kindsvater has found ways to adapt to the circumstances.
“A lot of the work I do involves the analysis of data sets and modelling techniques, in addition to field work,” she said. “I couldn’t have predicted it, but I’ve been successful at modelling the underlying fundamentals that are influencing population dynamics using theory and data that have already been collected.”
Kindsvater’s recent research has focused on understanding how social interactions between male and females during spawning can affect population dynamics. To produce ecological models of mating behaviors, she has studied the behaviors and traits of species including salmon, wrasse, swordtails, and darters.
“Coming to Virginia Tech has revealed that the skills I have are very transferable to freshwater systems,” she said. “I’m starting to apply my approach to species that aren’t fished, but are of concern. I currently have people in my lab studying salamander populations through the same framework I use to understand trends in fish species.”
Alumna Kylie Campbell: Rocky Mountain resource monitor and CNRE philanthropist
Kylie Campbell said that the biggest adjustment to working in the high Rocky Mountains is finding the right gear to match conditions in the field.
“Working in Colorado or Wyoming is so different than Virginia,” said Campbell, who graduated from the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation with a degree in water: resources, policy, and management in 2018. “In my first year on the job, I was really put to the test, from just getting dressed for the field to driving four-wheelers and learning how to use augers and other power tools.”
Campbell is currently a hydrologic technician for the Grand Junction field office of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Colorado Water Science Center, where she is tasked with monitoring water data at a dozen sites along the western slope of the Rockies.
“Right now, I focus on stream gauging, which is monitoring how much water is going downstream and what the flow of water is at any particular moment,” explained Campbell, who, as a student, worked at the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, first as a lab and field assistant and then as an administrative assistant. “We have equipment that we deploy that transmits information to a satellite, and we use the measurements from that equipment to build a relationship about how much water is going where.”
Campbell explained that having an accurate understanding of how much water is flowing through the mountains has significance as a safety and planning measure.
“First and foremost, there is a public safety element to what we’re doing. If a flood is coming, we’re able to give people notice way upstream that the flow is rising, which is important in low-lying places,” said Campbell.
Another factor is water rights administration. Cities and towns need to understand how much water is going where so water managers can know how full their reservoirs are going to get. Water is a key resource, and there are numerous legal considerations between states over access to water. Our agency is a non-biased source of information to help people make sound decisions about water management.”
As a Hokie, Campbell received the Leo Bourassa Scholarship, the John and Janey Doughty Endowed Scholarship, and the Jeffery Andrew Fuerst Memorial Scholarship. She was also a Phi Kappa Phi Medallion recipient and the college’s Outstanding Senior in 2018.
Her career began in a whirlwind. The day after she graduated from Virginia Tech, Campbell moved to Colorado to start an AmeriCorps position conducting visitor surveys for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Traveling to 35 states over 10 months, Campbell said that the experience opened her eyes to how important conservation work is to people.
“We met so many different people, and talking to them opened my eyes to how much they have in common,” she explained. “We’d talk to a person dressed in camo ready to go duck hunting and then talk to a woman who was interested in bird watching, and they had a shared interest in wanting wildlife spaces that were healthy and accessible.”
That experience led Campbell to seek work first with the U.S. Forest Service in the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, and now with the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado. And while she is a long way from Blacksburg, Campbell makes it a point to stay connected to the university, making a gift to the college every year.
“Virginia Tech gave me so much, and I can’t overstate how amazing my experience was, and how much I loved being there,” she said. “I really believe in what the college is doing, and they pump out seriously qualified students who are tackling critically important problems. I think it’s important to give back to a place that gave a lot to me.”
Written by David Fleming