Biology : Graduate Student Profiles

Molly O’Leary

Molly and her family

WCSU degree program: Master of Arts in biological and environmental sciences, 2012

Current position: Farm caretaker and alpaca farm manager in Dutchess County, N.Y.

Molly O’Leary believes that she can make a difference in protecting a global environment in crisis through real-world research on the front lines of environmental conservation – and her quest began in an evening biology class at WCSU.

A native of Guilford, Conn., O’Leary received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Colorado and worked for several years in the fisheries industry in Alaska before entering the field of social services. A decade ago, she moved to Dutchess County in New York where she still works as a farm caretaker and manager of an alpaca farm.

“I began to burn out after working in human services for five years and started taking a general bio course at WestConn with Dr. Bronstein,” she recalled. “Although the course load was tough with a full-time job and the farm, I was hooked.” Mentoring by Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Richard Halliburton and further lab and course studies prepared O’Leary for admission two years later into the curriculum leading to a master’s degree in biology. After five more years of pursuing studies while holding her farm jobs and beginning a family, “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” with anticipated graduation in fall 2012, she said.

Under the guidance of Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Mitch Wagener and Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Theodora Pinou, O’Leary currently is conducting research sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Transportation to quantify and characterize changes in the quality of the habitat of an endangered salamander species along the recently completed U.S. Route 7 bypass in Brookfield.  Monitoring more than 60 points along the roadway’s edges – some requiring a climb up steep talus slopes – she measures nine habitat variables at each point in the spring, summer and fall.

Wagener’s roots in Alaska and specialization in ecology provided a common bond with her own background and interests, she noted, and Pinou’s recognition as a leading authority in the field of herpetology inspired  O’Leary to pursue her own passion for studying amphibians and reptiles. “Without Dora, I would not have gotten my current project opportunity, and without Mitch, I would not have known what to do,” she remarked.

Her personal journey to a career as an environmental researcher began in her Guilford childhood “playing in the swamps, building forts, exploring vernal pools, and turning over every rock and log I crossed,” she observed. “I always had an itch to explore and get out into nature.”

A fascination with Alaska topographic maps while working as an undergraduate in the University of Colorado library led O’Leary and her partner after graduation to “drive to the end of the road in Homer, Alaska.” That road trip proved the start of several years’ labor in the halibut industry and on scallop boats in the coastal Alaskan towns of Homer, Moose Pass and Seward. “On the docks and the boats,” she recalled, “I met many people who respect and depend on these fish and work to ensure the species’ conservation.”

In her studies at Western, O’Leary has discovered a means to combine her lifelong passion for nature with a rigorous education in biology and ecology that provides the scientific understanding critical to advancing effective strategies and policies for environmental conservation.  In her current field research, she noted, “I am doing real-life research in the field, gathering data for my thesis and getting experience. I’m part of a team that shares my passion.”

“I believe those who are ‘naturalists’ out there have a role in society that is becoming critical to all life,” she said. Moving beyond the classroom and the laboratory, “WestConn offers plenty of opportunities for field research, and you have to put yourself out there to get it. If you are self-motivated, have a strong work ethic, and are passionate about your interest, there is no reason you cannot get an excellent education and experience at WestConn.”

In her work as caretaker and manager for a farm near Holmes, N.Y., she revels in introducing her 3- and 4-year-old daughters to the property’s 22 acres of forest habitat and the surrounding area’s natural beauty.

“My goal is to make it possible for them to experience the natural world in as much abundance as I have,” she said. “I have always been the environmentalist, the annoying recycler, the one who takes in strays wild and domestic, the tree-hugger. Environmental conservation seems to be the best way to pursue this passion and make a real difference with real research.”

Her advice to students considering a career in biological and environmental sciences is to believe that they can make a difference.

“If you are like me, know that there is a place for us in this deteriorating world,” she affirmed. “If you too feel that the environmental crisis facing our planet is overwhelming, then do something about it.”