Florida may be known for its tropical beauty and abundant sunshine—but Samantha Chapman’s outdoor laboratory in the Sunshine State can be a chilly, muddy experience.
Donning waterproof boots and extra layers, Dr. Chapman and her student research collaborators trudge through remote, swampy marshes along Florida’s east coast to study three species of tropical wetland trees classified as mangroves.
“I’m an ecosystem ecologist, which means I study how plants and animals interact with the world around them,” explains Dr. Chapman, a founding professor of the University’s new Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Stewardship. “We look at how global changes are affecting coastal ecosystems, like mangroves and marshes, through sea-level rise and warming temperatures.”
As part of their research, they are investigating how mangrove trees will respond to a changing climate and help shield US coastlines against rising seas. The data they collect in Florida has global implications for mangrove restoration efforts around the world, particularly in Asia, where Dr. Chapman has expanded her team’s studies in order to make cross-continental comparisons between coastal wetlands in the East and West.
Villanova students are playing a significant part in broadening international research efforts. From Florida to the Philippines and other coastal areas across the globe, Dr. Chapman is inspiring her students to develop strategies for safeguarding mangroves, which are vital natural storm barricades. Dr. Chapman considers mentoring to be one of the most meaningful parts of being a professor.
“Being able to take students’ ideas about science and advance them to the next level is rewarding,” she says. “It’s a big component of my job, helping them find the right place at the right time to ask the questions and gather the data they need to advance their own research.”
For Elizabeth “Libby” O’Brien ’19, that right place is in the Philippines, where she received a Fulbright grant to continue her thesis work analyzing mangrove ecology and environmental ethics. She currently is working with a team of researchers trying to understand how to best recover these types of ecosystems.
"The Philippines is really a hotbed for mangrove restoration efforts,” says Dr. Chapman, who guided Libby in the application process after working closely with her—on campus and in the field—since her first year at Villanova. “In many ways, the work that she’s doing is the next step in a lot of the research that I do. It’s gratifying to see my students get to work on something they are truly passionate about and grow into their careers.”
Although most of her time in the field is spent in Florida studying the protective value of mangroves for coastlines, Dr. Chapman is next heading East—far East: To China, in fact. There, she’ll be collaborating with Chinese scientists to study their coastal wetlands and make some cross-continental comparisons. Unlike the US, where most mangroves are protected, in many parts of Asia, big tracts are being lost at a rapid rate due to shrimp farms.