In September 2017, Hurricane María devastated the northeastern Caribbean. Even after years of recovery, the effects of the storm — arguably the worst natural disaster in recorded history to hit the region — still linger.

Hurricane María was also a turning point in the life of Carla López Lloreda, the 2022 Outstanding Master’s Student in the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, López Lloreda developed an interest in preserving the natural resources of her home country. She earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Puerto Rico and was working as a research technician at El Yunque National Forest when Hurricane María struck. Within a week, López Lloreda was back at work, sampling and fixing damaged monitoring infrastructure.

Experiencing firsthand the devastation wrought by the hurricane — including weeks without water and months without power — she became even more motivated to make a difference through her research.

“Living through the hurricane back home,” said López Lloreda, “was a moment when I realized what I was committed to, which was helping improve our water quality, helping improve how we manage our resources and getting education out [in the community] on water resources and how we impact them.”

López Lloreda’s renewed commitment led her to the College of Science, where she joined the lab of Erin Hotchkiss, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, in 2020.  She has become a collaborator and contributor on the project “Hydrologic Connectivity and Water Storage as Drivers of Carbon Export and Emissions from Wetland-Dominated Catchments.”

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Her research, taking place both in Puerto Rico and Maryland, focuses on understanding how natural and human-induced landscape disturbances affect carbon and other nutrient cycling in aquatic ecosystems, specifically in streams and wetlands.

“Streams and wetlands are starting to be understood as sources of greenhouse gases, but these dynamics are really complex,” said López Lloreda. “That’s what I’m interested in — what influences these greenhouse dynamics in streams and wetlands and how they’re being impacted by things like land use and changing hydrology and rain events.”

As part of her research, López Lloreda has worked with leaders of a government-funded collaborative project that is developing a framework to assess the health of non-tidal coastal wetlands in Puerto Rico. This project has enabled her to make connections with Puerto Rican scientists while also contributing new knowledge on the current state and future management of inland waters in Puerto Rico.

Said Hotchkiss, “It’s been exciting to see how skilled Carla is at developing new connections and collaborations while communicating the importance of her science broadly.”

The recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in fall 2020, López Lloreda has earned additional honors in her time at Virginia Tech, including a Virginia Water Resources Research fellowship and a biogeochemistry research grant and graduate travel award from the Society of Wetlands Scientists.

Outreach and education efforts are significant to López Lloreda’s work. She served as a co-principal investigator for an Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography Global Outreach Initiative geared toward supporting K-12 educational outreach in Puerto Rico. In addition, she helped plan a “Flipped Science Fair” event, which gave local middle-schoolers the opportunity to evaluate research presentations from Virginia Tech graduate students.

Meanwhile, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are also important to López Lloreda, who serves on DEI committees and working groups both at Virginia Tech and in her professional society.

“In my personal journey of being a minoritized person in science, it was really when I moved to the United States that I realized how much work we still need to do,” said López Lloreda. “I know what it feels like to be in spaces where you feel you don’t belong. I think that’s where a lot of my interests have come from.”

Carla López Lloreda stands at the bottom of La Coca Falls in Puerto Rico, the falls reach up into the sky, topped by trees. Photo courtesy Carla López Lloredo.

Carla López Lloreda stands at the bottom of La Coca Falls in Puerto Rico, the falls reach up into the sky, topped by trees. Photo courtesy Carla López Lloredo.
Carla López Lloreda stands in front of La Coco Falls in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest in the aftermath of Hurricane María. Photo courtesy Carla López Lloredo.

López Lloreda will remain at Virginia Tech to continue her research and complete her Ph.D. in biological sciences. Ultimately, she plans to return to Puerto Rico to work in water resources management in either the nonprofit or local government sectors, integrating research with educational programs.

“My vision for myself is to contribute to the development of a more resilient Puerto Rico,” said López Lloreda. “Seeing our dams in danger because of sedimentation, our streams polluted, and communities struggling to find potable water made me realize that Puerto Rico has a lot of work to do to become resilient in the face of climate change.”

The work that López Lloreda has done, and will continue to do, at Virginia Tech has put her on the path toward making an even greater impact on her community in Puerto Rico.

“I think what I’m finding here at Tech are ways to grow toward [my goals],” continued López Lloreda. “I feel like I’m growing not only as a scientist, but also as an individual, and I attribute that a lot to the community I have around me.”

That community includes Hotchkiss, who praises López Lloreda as an “extraordinary early career scientist.”

“In my time as a graduate advisor to Carla,” said Hotchkiss, an affiliated member of the Global Change Center, housed within the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “I have been impressed with her critical and creative thinking skills, excitement to expand her scientific horizons, commitment to building a more inclusive scientific community, and her long-term vision of establishing a water resources research and management institute in her home country of Puerto Rico.

“I very much look forward to where her career will take her.”

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