Faculty Mentors Key to Biology Student’s Graduate Experience

Emily Geoghegan ’19 MS conducts field research

Master’s student Emily Geoghegan found Villanova faculty with similar research interests to help her advance her career

Emily Geoghegan ’19 MS works in a control plot collecting data

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Emily Geoghegan ’19 MS has been interested in nature and the environment since elementary school, but it wasn’t until after taking some influential courses in college that she decided she wanted to pursue a career in ecosystems science. After a research-intensive undergraduate experience at Bryn Mawr College, Geoghegan chose to pursue her master’s at Villanova because of the opportunity to work closely with faculty mentors who held similar research interests to hers.

Geoghegan is working with her thesis adviser, Samantha Chapman, PhD, associate professor of Biology, on Chapman’s National Science Foundation-funded wetland protection study, learning critical research and writing skills as she prepares to enter a top PhD program.

“Emily came in with a nice research profile and has really blossomed into an independent researcher,” says Dr. Chapman. “I trust her to lead a big part of the NSF project because she is such a good researcher and excellent writer. I am lucky to have her in my lab group.”

Below, Geoghegan discusses her academic journey and plans for a future in science.

 

Can you talk a bit about your current research and how you chose your field of interest?

I am working on Dr. Chapman’s team to study how mangrove encroachment in Northern Florida is affecting wetland soils. Mangroves have been migrating north from the more tropical, southern parts of Florida because the winters have been less harsh with fewer freeze events. Temperatures that drop below freezing can severely damage or kill mangroves, and this is why mangroves have not been found in higher latitudes, until now. For my particular thesis project, I am investigating how mangrove encroachment will affect soil processes such as decomposition and accretion. These processes are incredibly important because they determine how well these wetlands can keep up with sea-level rise. Theoretically, if mangrove encroachment significantly changes the ability of wetlands to build up soil, it could either help keep these wetlands around or contribute to their destruction.

Growing up, I always loved camping, hiking and learning about nature. Shout-out to the PA Envirothon and YMCA Earth Service Corps! I never thought of environmental science as a career until I took an environmental studies class and an ecology-focused biology class in college. I discovered that I was fascinated by ecosystem science and I wanted to keep learning more. I joined an ecosystems lab as an undergraduate and spent every summer afterward in field-based environmental research internships.

 

You seem to have had a rich research experience as an undergraduate, even getting a paper published. Can you talk about that experience?

I had an amazing experience getting to be so heavily involved in research as an undergrad. I spent the summer of 2016 on Plum Island, Mass., studying how long-term nitrate fertilization affects wetland gas exchange. I worked with the TIDE Project, which had been artificially fertilizing two creeks for more than 13 years to look at the long-term impacts of nitrogen pollution on all aspects of wetland ecosystems – from fish populations to soil microbial communities. I measured the rates of photosynthesis and respiration of the marsh grass that grew along the edges of the creeks. From this information, we calculated if carbon, in the form of CO2, was being taken in or released by the marsh. We found that fertilized creeks could be losing carbon due to higher rates of respiration. After collecting data all summer, I came back to Bryn Mawr and used the data to write my senior thesis. Working closely with my adviser, Dr. Thomas Mozdzer, and his former postdoc, Dr. Joshua Caplan, we reworked my thesis into a publishable manuscript. I never realized how much work goes into writing a peer-reviewed paper! Even though it was challenging, I learned a lot from the experience. I learned how to conduct extensive literature searches, write code to analyze data and to write as clearly and concisely as possible. It gave me an appreciation for the whole scientific process because I was able to follow a project from conception to completion. Instead of just collecting data, I was able to develop research questions, hone the methodology and share my work with the larger scientific community.

 

Did you choose Villanova for graduate school because of similar research interests with faculty here?

Absolutely! When looking at grad schools, Dr. Sam Chapman and Dr. Adam Langley stood out as mentors with exactly the kind of research I wanted to pursue. I’ve found that the faculty at Villanova are incredibly accomplished and passionate about their fields, and are also respected members of their scientific communities.

 

How has your Villanova experience been so far?

I have really enjoyed my time at Villanova and have gotten just what I wanted out of my graduate experience: the ability to work on more independent research, to meet new people and present at scientific conferences. The most recent conference I attended was the 2018 meeting of the Society of Wetland Scientists in Denver. There, I was able to give an oral presentation of my research at a conference for the first time. Now that I’ve gotten over the first-time-presenter nerves, I look forward to my next chance to present at a conference.

The people at Villanova have made my graduate experience better than I could have imagined. I have a great cohort of fellow graduate students and lab members, and the faculty have been open and helpful. Dr. Chapman, Dr. Langley and Dr. Kelman Wieder have helped me with my thesis and have taught me how to improve my writing, how to advocate for myself and how to approach scientific questions. After seeing them excel in both research and teaching, I look to them as examples of the kind of scientist I want to be in my career. Right now, I plan to continue on to a PhD program.

 

You participated in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Research that Resonates podcast. What was that experience like?

It was a very different and very fun experience. To be honest, I’d gotten so used to pitching my research to other scientists that it was challenging to break it down in a way that was clear and interesting for people outside of my field. However, this is why I thought it was a valuable experience that all scientists should have at one point. It put things in perspective to focus on the larger picture of our lab’s research rather than getting into the details of methodologies. The kind of science we do is largely funded by the public though government grants, so I’ve been learning how important it is to teach people outside of our field about why our work matters. Dr. Chapman has been a great example in that sense because she has a knack for breaking science down and making it interesting to other people. After showing some friends and family the podcast, they told me that it really helped them understand our work.

 

What would you say to a prospective graduate student who was considering Villanova for a master’s in Biology?

Make finding a great mentor your first priority in your grad school search. In my experience, Villanova has been great in regards to its lab spaces, classes, support systems … and winning basketball championships … However, what has made my experience so great has been the community and my mentors. Good mentors will teach you the techniques, skills and connections you need to do well in your field. With a good mentor-student match, you will get the most out of your graduate experience.

overhead image of mangroves

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.