CAFE and the Environment

A Future As Wide As All Outdoors

By Jeff Franklin

NRES offered a course in wilderness emergency medicine. “A wilderness first responder certification helps them get a job and prepares them in case something happens in the field."—Geri Philpott. Photo by Steve Patton.

Imagine a strand of mangrove and palm, on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, in the black of night, with nothing but the moon for light. You're there to protect the eggs of the endangered leatherback sea turtle from poachers, as the females come ashore to make their nests in the sand.

It’s not the setting for a science fiction thriller, but a life-changing experience for UK Natural Resources and Environmental Science major Mariah Lewis.

The Chicago native was in the first NRES class to go to Costa Rica for summer camp. NRES students are required to attend a summer camp as part of their degree program. They may choose between a three-week intensive study of Robinson Forest in Eastern Kentucky, offered in May, or a 15-day, study- abroad trip to Costa Rica in August, which was added in 2013. The Costa Rica experience left such an impression on Lewis that she wanted to research turtles when she returned to Kentucky. Steven Price, assistant professor of wildlife ecology in the Forestry Department and one of the NRES professors on the trip, teamed Lewis with a UK graduate student researching the eastern box turtle. This summer, Lewis had the chance to present her research at a national meeting in Orlando, Florida.

“I have had opportunities I don’t know if I would have had, if I had any other major at UK,” said Lewis. “It’s a great program to be a part of, because you are so connected with everybody, and everybody is working hard to get you where you want to be.”

The NRES degree is an interdisciplinary program that started as an individualized degree in the College of Agriculture in the late 1980s and finally evolved into a program named Natural Resource Conservation and Management in 1994. The program continued to morph over the years and is more structured and streamlined today, but it still allows students the freedom to choose their area of concentration. Mary Arthur, a professor of forest ecology and chair of the NRES steering committee, said that’s the beauty of the program.

“One thing that is really neat about the program is it gives the students a baseline of common knowledge, and then they can concentrate in areas they are most interested in, coupled with their internship,” Arthur said.

Students are required to do an internship that meshes well with their analytical skill and their environmental systems area, so they build actual practicum experience that enhances their classroom experience.

That’s what Anna Muncy, a spring 2014 graduate, said she liked most about the NRES degree.

Natalie Redish, Frank McCoy, Mariah Lewis, Christine Buschermohle, and
Janet “Kd” Eaton in Costa Rica. Lewis returned to Kentucky wanting to research turtles.

( l-r) Natalie Redish, Frank McCoy, Mariah Lewis, Christine Buschermohle, and
Janet “Kd” Eaton in Costa Rica. Lewis returned to Kentucky wanting to research turtles.

“I liked how diverse all the courses are. You take things that deal with forestry, ecology, plants, wildlife, geology, and some biology,” Muncy said. “Then you pick what you prefer and cater your degree towards that. Most degrees don’t allow you to do that. Whatever you are interested in, you can take classes in.”

Faculty from five departments within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment—Forestry, Plant and Soil Sciences, Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, Landscape Architecture, and Agricultural Economics—as well as from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, make up the NRES steering committee. Currently, fewer than a hundred students are enrolled in the program. The small class sizes and one-to-one attention from professors are what students say they enjoy most.

“I think that was one of the greatest things; I would walk into a class, and depending on the class, I would know most of the people or at least half,” said Karyn Loughrin, ’12. “I really got to know my fellow NRES students and got to talk about the topics we were all passionate about. Those are two of the strongest components in the NRES program.”

Mariah Lewis agreed with Loughrin.

Student reporting research to group

Three weeks of intensive study at UK's Robinson Forest in Eastern Kentucky can include anything
from identifying birds from their calls to investigating water quality and stream life. Here a student
reports his research findings to his classmates. Photo by Brad Beckman.

“You know your professors, and you’re able to make connections with them. Because of that, it opens up opportunities to work on research with your professor, or go on cool trips like Costa Rica.”

Because of the diversity of the NRES degree, students are trained broadly to understand natural systems and social science systems.

Graduates of the program are spread across the globe in a variety of careers, including agricultural economics university faculty, lawyers focused on environmental law, consultants, policy-based careers, and naturalists. Geri Philpott, the program’s academic coordinator, said the curriculum has a lot to do with that.

“We have this amazing pool of alumni who are out there and working in the field, from Africa to Australia to Alaska and all over Kentucky as well,” Philpott said. “Having those alumni who are connected to the program helps our students when they are looking for internships and jobs.”

Graduates of the NRES program are quick to praise their professors for helping prepare them to become professionals. Muncy said Arthur’s classes helped her be ready.

Student taking stream samples

Photo by Carol Lea Spence

“She treats you like a professional and expects that of you,” said Muncy. “A lot of people get frustrated and think she is really hard and tough, but in the end, I don’t think anyone can complain that they didn’t learn from her.”

Loughrin felt her professors were always very approachable.

“I never felt intimidated to approach one of my professors with any issue I had in a class,” Loughrin said. “Professors were very encouraging. If they knew you were interested in something, they were very open to taking students in and helping them do research.”

The bottom line? With connections, support, and experience behind them, NRES graduates are prepared to make a real impact in a career field as wide as all outdoors.