Three Ecology students receive Ag Sci awards

A trio of graduate researchers from the Huck's Ecology program were recently honored by the College of Agricultural Sciences.

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Emma Rice, Marissa Kopp, and Jessica Brown—all graduate students from the Huck's intercollege graduate degree program in Ecology—recently received awards and recognition from the College of Agricultural Sciences for their outstanding research contributions.

Katherine Mabis McKenna Fellowship

Emma Rice, a member of Carolyn Lowry's lab, was awarded the Katherine Mabis McKenna Fellowship, which recognizes outstanding graduate students studying plant use for environmental stewardship. Rice’s graduate work has focused on developing a DNA-based method to identify cover crop species composition in root biomass and evaluating the ecosystem services provided by different cover crop mixtures.

“I am very honored to receive the award as environmental stewardship and watershed conservation are topics I am passionate about,” Rice said. “Our understanding of how species composition affects the functioning of cover crop mixtures has largely been based on the aboveground plant community. However, many ecosystem services are linked to roots and the rhizosphere (root influenced soil). Since many roots look similar, a challenge for research on biodiverse plant communities is determining which roots belong to which species.

With her technique to identify and quantify roots, Rice said she can now investigate the relationship between aboveground and belowground composition. This work will inform how cover crop mixtures can be optimized to provide rhizosphere associated ecosystem services such as weed control, nutrient supply, and nutrient retention.

Rice previously received a prestigious predoctoral fellowship from the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to conduct research on cover crops.

Paul Hand Award for Graduate Student Teaching Achievement

Marissa Kopp, an advisee of Jason Kaye, was granted the Paul Hand Award for Graduate Student Teaching Achievement for developing a science communication course in the Environmental Resource Management program. Marissa’s research focuses on carbon and nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems. She has previously received the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship, Victoria Braithwaite Research Excellence Award, Katherine Mabis McKenna Award, and Scarlett Fellowship in Watershed Stewardship.

“This fellowship helps me support one of my core beliefs, which is that teaching and learning are inseparably intertwined,” Kopp said.

Kopp plans to continue creating science communication resources aimed at both scientists and communicators alike. “Teaching environmental science communication is rewarding but challenging. Most scientists are not formally trained communicators, and most communicators are not formally trained scientists. I work at this interface to design course materials and teaching resources because, ultimately, we’ll need teachers shaped by cross-disciplinary insights if we want learners to span these boundaries.” Currently, Kopp is working on drafting a chapter for the Modern Language Association’s Options for Teaching series.

“To face global environmental crises, we need the next generation of scientists to not only create new knowledge but to communicate that knowledge to practitioners, policymakers, and common people," she added. "My work asks how we can support today’s students to create tomorrow’s scientists.”

Evans Family Award for Graduate Student Extension

Jessica Brown, who is mentored by Erika Machtinger, was granted the Evans Family Award for Graduate Student Extension Achievement. Brown received this recognition due to her dedication to science communication with the Pennsylvania public. Her outstanding contributions include workshops, webinar, and social media communications about vector-borne disease.

“I am honored to have received this award in recognition of my Extension work in vector-borne disease," said Brown. "As a Pennsylvania native, I have felt a pull towards teaching people how to protect themselves from tick bites since I first got involved in vector research. In an ever-changing world, it is so critical that we maintain focus on translating the most current research and tailoring it to a variety of audiences outside of the university setting. Over the years, it has become my favorite part of my work at Penn State.”

Brown’s webinars and educational videos can be found on her personal website. Additionally, Brown successfully defended her dissertation on February 21.

“We have students excelling at the highest level in research, teaching and extension – the pillars of our land-grant university,” said Jason Kaye, Distinguished Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry and Chair of the Ecology program.