Published 08/16/09

Leaders for an environmentally-friendly world

August 16, 2009

As long as Caitlyn Witkowski ’11 (Saint James, NY) can remember, her parents have encouraged her to be environmentally aware. Her family grew their own fruit and vegetables, took part in environmental clean-ups, and always recycled.

In high school, she served as co-president of the Earth and Outdoors Club and took advanced placement courses in environmental science. It was during one of these classes that she got involved in the Long Island Power Authority Clean Energy Challenge, where her charge was to design a “green” sports arena. After months of research, her team captured the top prize.

“The research projects in China and Mongolia will enhance [students'] understanding of the scope of global environmental challenges and underscore the importance of seeing problems firsthand as we all try to think globally and act locally."

Gaytha Langlois

The popularity of the contest and the emphasis place on socially-responsible practices turned what Witkowski first saw as a hobby into a possible vocation.

“I realized how environmental science is not some abstract notion represented by the color green, but is, in fact a very practical career path with real-life application,” she says.

Hands-on research

Witkowski is one of Bryant’s first students to major in the environmental science program introduced last fall. The major, which joins two long-standing minors in environmental science and biotechnology, is supported by a new, nearly 10,000-square-foot lab space that features teaching labs and more than $500,000 worth of equipment.

This summer Witkowski is taking advantage of two of the aspects that make Bryant’s program unique: the opportunity to study internationally and the chance to participate in an intensive research component working side-by-side with faculty members. She traveled to Northern China along the border of Mongolia to explore climate change with a group of scientists from around the world.

She spent the fall semester as a lab assistant with Science and Technology Professor Hong Yang preparing for her journey. Professor Yang coached her on the methodology of the experiments they would conduct and the equipment she would use to study primary foxtail millet, the first form of agriculture in Northern China.  She also worked with scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to learn a software program that will be used to analyze her results.

Witkowski laid the groundwork for communicating with native Chinese by taking part in Bryant’s STARTALK program, a federally-funded initiative that brings students and teachers to Bryant to study Chinese language and culture. As part of the program, Witkowski traveled with the group to China, where she experienced Beijing, visited the Great Wall, and immersed herself in the culture.

Then, with a group of scientists that included Gaytha Langlois, professor and chair of science and technology; Qin Leng, incoming Bryant associate professor of biochemistry; and Yang, Witkowski spent two weeks traveling along the Great Wall to collect foxtail millet left at archeological sites by ancient civilizations nearly 10,000 years ago.

In fall 2009 under the direction of Yang, Witkowski will run a series of tests to determine the environmental conditions of ancient Chinese civilizations. She will also combine her second major in global studies to work with Associate Professor of History and Social Sciences John Dietrich to write a comparative analysis of how people lived in different climates.

Faculty collaboration

The chance to work so closely with Bryant faculty, an opportunity available to all environmental science majors, is what drew Witkowski to Bryant.

“There is not a single professor in the department who wasn’t absolutely friendly, helpful, and genuinely interested in what I have to say,” says Witkowski. “They are such an invaluable resource.”

While Witkowski was studying the changing climate, her classmate Crystal Tremblay '10 (Woonsocket, RI) dedicated her research time in China to examining the bamboo industry and its effect on the giant panda habitat. Her focus is on learning which environments bamboo could grow, so the giant panda population can thrive.

Her goal is to work for an organization like the Environmental Protection Agency, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or the World Wildlife Fund. “I want to be able to take what I’ve learned and apply it to help the planet,” says Tremblay.

Langlois says the students are learning about the interconnectedness of the world.

“The research projects in China and Mongolia will enhance their understanding of the scope of global environmental challenges and underscore the importance of seeing problems firsthand as we all try to think globally and act locally,” she says.

‘Walking, talking textbook’

Katie Gorham ’10 (Baltimore, MD) appreciates the valuable insights she’s gained through hands-on research. She has worked with Yang to organize fossils and with Assistant Science and Technology Professor Kirsten Antonelli on biomedical lab research.

“From my experience, this is really the sort of opportunity that doesn’t happen often,” says Gorham, who hopes to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. degree after graduation. “It is a chance to have your own personal walking and talking textbook teach you step-by-step how to use state-of-the-art equipment in a brand-new lab.”

Another environmental science major, Daniel DiMugno ’11 (South Windsor, CT), says he was drawn to the field by the opportunity to learn about the effect people have on the planet. Studying abroad in England during the spring semester, DiMugno took a course that explored different uses of alternative energy.

“It is more than a career,” says DiMugno, who one day hopes to combine a second major in actuarial mathematics to evaluate environmental risk. “It can alter my way of thinking and allow me to genuinely understand what we can do to help save the earth.”

Qin Leng, who took part in the research trip this summer, is looking forward to the opportunity to work with students at Bryant.

“My favorite part of being a professor is inspiring my students to appreciate nature, teaching them to think critically, and encouraging them to challenge themselves with the fast-paced development of modern science,” says Leng. “I look forward to being able to learn with them.”