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Environmental interests provide hands-on research opportunities for student
Catrina Morgan '12

When she began her studies at Western four years ago, Catrina Morgan could not have imagined how her academic journey would lead her to explore some of the most pressing environmental challenges in the region and take an active role in raising community awareness of their public policy impact.

This spring Morgan will graduate from Western with a bachelor’s degree in biology, earned in classroom studies and field research that have established a solid foundation to pursue graduate studies at Arizona State University and a future career in environmental sciences. She will leave WCSU with confidence in her abilities to plan and conduct independent research projects, and appreciation for the important role that science can play in informing public debate of environmental issues.

“My research experiences in these past few years have really shaped my future career goals,” Morgan remarked. “I started my undergraduate career as a nursing student and quickly realized that the medical field was not my calling.” She settled in her sophomore year on a major in biology, and soon gained an influential mentor in her academic adviser, Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Mitch Wagener.

“I first became involved in ecological research in Candlewood Lake after I expressed my interest in environmental issues to Dr. Wagener,” she recalled. “He recognized my ambition and motivation to succeed, and was my primary connection to the executive director of the Candlewood Lake Authority (CLA), Larry Marsicano. I have always loved outdoor activities and jumped at the opportunity to conduct research on the lake.”

What began as a desire to pursue serious academic work in the field blossomed into roles of increasing responsibility and importance in two of the university’s most ambitious research projects with direct implications for the environmental protection, resource management and recreational use of western Connecticut’s largest fresh-water lakes. Her first summer on Candlewood Lake in 2010 initiated her to the WCSU collaboration with CLA over the past four years in studying the effectiveness of using milfoil weevils as a biological tool to control Eurasian watermilfoil growth in shallows along the lake’s 60-mile shoreline. After serving that summer as an assistant to post-doctoral researcher Michelle Marko, Wagener and Marsicano asked Morgan to step forward as student research coordinator for the project.

“I value the experience because it has shown me first-hand how difficult it can be to get students and lake workers with different schedules in the same place, at the same time and in the right mindset,” she observed. After addressing the initial task of training new student volunteers, she added, “we gained confidence in our ability to analyze the samples and produce valid data, and we were able to sample and produce data for four different times spread throughout the season. I believe that a four-year analysis of the milfoil data, cross-referenced with the weather data, can help to further understand and manage the milfoil invasion.”   

Morgan’s participation in the project launched last year to seek evidence of the invasive zebra mussel species in Candlewood Lake, Lake Lillinonah and Lake Zoar introduced her to the public policy and community outreach aspects of scientific research. In addition to field sampling for zebra mussel larvae, or veligers, in area lakes, she worked as a volunteer last summer at Candlewood boat ramps for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, providing information to recreational boaters about the risks that zebra mussels pose to area lakes and the recommended measures to ensure that boats exposed to mussel-infested waters do not become carriers to spread mussel populations.

“I believe that public outreach is one of the most important preventative measures, especially for an invasion that is mediated by human transportation,” she said. “The most valuable part of my zebra mussel experience has been witnessing how difficult it can be for researchers to explain the potential hazards and consequences of an invasion that hasn’t happened yet. Some members of the public reacted with a positive outlook, thanking us for our time and dedication to the issue; others wanted answers more quickly than they are being produced. This is similar to the milfoil project: People are looking for quick solutions to the problem, but the science and logistics of the issue just don’t allow for an easy fix.” Still, she believes it is the scientist’s obligation to inform public debate of such issues, “so that people can understand the ecological impacts that will affect them as well as the biodiversity of the lake.”

Morgan credited Wagener for his “incredible talent to recognize the ability and motivation of his students,” and Marsicano for “pushing me to accomplish things that were previously out of my comfort zone.” Building on research skills ranging from lab techniques to statistical analysis and organism identification, she has continued to seek out new challenges with her current studies in geographic information systems (GIS) and its applications in analysis of ecological species invasions. She has chosen GIS  as her field of specialization for her master’s program at Arizona State.

“My advice to all students who have an interest in the sciences is to keep your mind open, and step out of your comfort zone,” Morgan said. “Each and every day is an opportunity to stumble upon new inspiration, which may be completely different from the path you were on. Pursuing a new idea may be uncomfortable at first, but the experiences are well worth the time and effort.”

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