During the first semester of my freshman year, I took Geology 103, a class designed to introduce students to current environmental complications that Earth is facing. I had studied environmental science in high school, but this class broadened my perspective on the abundance of environmental problems that we must address in the coming years. My professor, Dr. Michael McKinney, emphasized that solutions to these issues are attainable, and he reminded us that, as residents of this planet, we can all play a part to remedy the environmental harms that have been inflicted. So, when I saw an email from Dr. McKinney about a research project on invasive species, I quickly decided that I wanted to participate.
Invasion biology examines the movement of invasive species and their influences on surrounding environments. It has become a critical field of study in an era of accelerated climate change and loss of biodiversity. The research project in which I was involved studies temporal and spatial patterns of invasive terrestrial gastropods (i.e. snails and slugs) in the United States. The invasive gastropods that we researched spread through a variety of mediums, and in an age of globalization and increased connectivity across the world, they are much more likely to be transported via human mechanisms. The presence of invasive snails and slugs is often closely correlated with urbanization, and these organisms can have serious impacts on ecosystem health and agriculture. However, invasive gastropods are quite understudied, and knowledge concerning their modes of travel and consecutive impacts is limited.
During my initial meeting with Dr. McKinney, we discussed methods of analysis that I would use for this project. Since then, I have learned how to operate a Geographical Information System (GIS) program, and I have also gained experience in reading and analyzing scientific literature. As a result of these research tasks, my critical thinking skills, organizational abilities, and general curiosity for the natural sciences have undoubtedly grown. This project taught me that the while the initial stages of research can be convoluted, uncertain, and quite challenging, the milestones achieved throughout the process are incredible. I consider my research team’s and my greatest success to be the submission of an abstract to the Ecological Society of America; we presented our research at an annual Society meeting this August.
In addition to applying the scientific method to actual research, I believe that one of the best results from my research experience is the mentorship aspect. Dr. McKinney, Dr. Christy Leppanen, and Nicholas Gladstone have shaped my understanding and appreciation for the natural sciences, and they have inspired me continue participating in academic research. Not only do these people solidify my passion for the environment, but they also encourage my academic endeavors and challenge me to be a better researcher and citizen of science. As a first-year student, I was incredibly grateful to have these mentors and research opportunities to help with my development at such early stage of college.
I believe that research is an integral component of the Haslam Scholars Program because it fosters both intellectual and personal growth. The research element in the HSP drives students to not only pursue their unique passions and interests, but also make meaningful contributions to the fields of study in which they are involved. Through their undergraduate research, Haslam Scholars embody intellectualism, curiosity, and a general enthusiasm for learning. Students in this program conduct research in a variety of fields and thus represent a diverse range of interests. In addition to motivating me to pursue research within my major, this program has exposed me to new perspectives and ideas, whether I am taking one of the HSP classes, conversing with a scholar, or attending a Friday faculty lecture. The collaboration and sense of community that I experience with fellow scholars have greatly influenced my college career. I can confidently say that, through both research and the Haslam Scholars Program, I grew a great deal during my first year at the University of Tennessee and have used these experiences to delve further into my interests during my sophomore year.