As a new freshmen class begins their Emory journey this fall, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on how this journey begins for students in the Department of Environmental Sciences (ENVS). For some students, the idea of studying in the department is clear from the very start and for others it happens that their interest in piqued when they take an introductory ENVS course or freshmen seminar. Such was the case with ENVS alumna, Sara Kuhn (C’16). In the fall of 2012, Sara enrolled in Professor Tony Martin’s freshmen seminar “Interpreting Behavior You Cannot See”. With no significant exposure to the discipline of environmental sciences in high school, the freshmen seminar was the hook for her to take additional courses in ENVS and eventually major in Environmental Sciences. As Sara explains, “all of my extremely positive experiences with the professors in the department really solidified my decision to study ENVS.”
For some students, a particular class provides a powerful moment of inspiration. For Sara, that class was the ENVS elective course “Creek/Muscogee Language and Ecology”. As a course that examined the cultural and environmental value of native plants, it put her on the path of looking for opportunities to explore native plants and ecology. Following her sophomore year, Sara participated in an internship at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, PA. In her own words, Sara describes her experience:“In this position, I was responsible for trail maintenance, propagation of native plants, and a variety of education programs for visitors, including a summer children’s program and daily guided wildflower walks.
The following summer, I built on this experience as a horticulture intern for Smithsonian Gardens, where I managed the gardens at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The NMAI garden is entirely native and heavily focused on the ecology of the mid-Atlantic region, which was the most interesting aspect for me.”
These opportunities to take her learning out of the classroom were foundational for Sara. The resources of the internship class (ENVS 497: Undergraduate Internship) presented, according to Sara, “practical ways in which you can leverage your internship experience into a career. The skills taught in that class are accessible to all students through the Career Center, but I’m not sure I would have used them all if they weren’t built into my schedule. Honestly, I find networking very intimidating and it was much easier to go to Green Networking Night and reach out the Atlanta community for informational interviews when it was built into my class schedule.”
Sara spent her post-undergraduate year as a fellow in the Emory Scholars Program and the following year working as a horticulturist at the Atlanta Botanical Garden before starting in her current position as an ecologist with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT). She draws significantly from Professor Yandle’s courses in environmental policy in her current position as they provided a foundation in policy writing and approaching complex policy issues. As an ecologist working with GDOT, Sara was able to meld her interest in urban ecological environments with policy, she writes:
“My position for GDOT as an ecologist has really allowed me to utilize my background and interests in a practical way. In this role, myself and the other ecologists survey proposed project sites for state and federally protected species, as well as wetlands and streams. On bridge replacement projects, we are particularly concerned with the presence of migratory birds and bats that might be using the bridge as a roost. We then assess potential impacts to these resources, work with designers to try and avoid or minimize those impacts, and finally write a report documenting the work that will be done. The job requires a lot of collaboration with internal partners as well as agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Georgia Department of Natural Resources.”
It has been inspiring to share Sara’s story as it so clearly demonstrates the Emory ideal of encouraging students to explore a variety of academic disciplines early in their undergraduate careers. These opportunities may open up paths that a student may not have even considered, as was the case for Sara. Thursdays around lunchtime Sara thinks fondly of waffles (and the occasional appearance of Professor Hall’s dog Moses) before she gets back to work in a job where she has found the synergy between her educational background and her passion for the environment.