Homecoming McCookout was a Blast

Despite my haphazard organizational skills, the first annual (its good to have ambitions !) homecoming McCookout went really well. The weather cooperated, and by noon-ish Joe had the grill going and loaded up with goodies. I would love to claim that the dinosaur cake was the star of the event, but the great pie bake-off between Amber and Jon took center stage.

The epic battle of the pies!

Amber’s was all whole-wheaty and supposedly healthy (but we all know there is no healthy pie crust worth the try …), while Jon went crazy with his mysterious “cinnamon pen” decorating the top with fancy swirly designs. About two dozen testers declared the pies worthy, but with room for improvement (we hope for more of them in the near future !!). Alumni were a bit slow in showing up. Only Adam remembered that “the early student gets the cake” and was there half an hour early. Good man!

The early crowd at McCookout. Once the party got going I was having too much fun to take pictures, but you can believe me – it was huge! Bigger than the last presidential inauguration. :-)

In the end we had maybe two, three dozen students and alumni attending. Our guest star was Joan Morrison, who came all the way from New Mexico. I’d say Lauren came in second,all the way from Portland, Maine. Stephani and Adam tied for closest commute: both made it all the way through town.

Unbeknownst to us we even had a satellite event! Hi Kelsey and Kate! Thanks for saying Hi. From the background it looks you two went all veggie. Oh, succulents – i get it.

Kelsey and Kate celebrating with us in San Diego! OK, Joan, you just got booted to number two.

We had so much fun that we decided to do it again next year. Always god academics we promptly founded a Homecoming McCookout Organizing Committee (HMcCOC) to make next year’s event even bigger and better: Vania and Lucian happily agreed to help out, so stay tuned.

We’re all looking forward to seeing you next year.

P.S. The dinosaur cake was eaten first – take that you apple pies!

Alumni News – Jeff Abrams (’05)

Christoph’s note: Jeff was one of my first research students and probably one of the reasons why I stayed on at Trinity. He was also a heavy smoker, which led to some problems on an inflatable rubber craft …

Jeff in Mudge Pond, Summer 2004

The instructions were to discuss life after Trinity, but since my final semester as an undergraduate was spent abroad studying in the Australian rain forest, it is worth mentioning.  Trinity encourages students to study abroad, and a field study semester is a valuable addendum to the Environmental Science curriculum.  We spent most of the semester evading (usually) the multitude of venomous, spiny, and/or constricting flora and fauna native to the rain forest just inland of the Great Barrier Reef, including potentially aggressive adult-human-sized birds. We did find time to study, among other things, the mating and dietary behavior of the tooth-billed bower bird (Scenopoeetes dentirostris). After graduating I went to Florida to complete a six month internship at Archbold Biological Station. The internship was organized by Trinity Professor Joan Morrison and was primarily a study of the diet of the Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway), a threatened raptor in the falcon family.  After completing the internship, I took a Marine Fisheries Observer position with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) collecting biological data aboard commercial fishing vessels.  Then I worked briefly doing assessment and remediation of petroleum impacted groundwater surrounding gas stations before returning to a Marine Fisheries Observer position.  Somehow I keep finding my career winding back to the marine environment!

In 2010, after four years as a fisheries observer, I enrolled at Humboldt State University in Northern California (think old-growth redwood forests growing down to rugged coastline), and earned a masters of science in natural resources/fisheries biology.  My thesis work involved the study (via hook-and-line sampling!) of fishes associated with rocky habitats along California’s Northcoast.  These fishes, primarily rockfish (Sebastes spp.), are diverse, colorful, slow-growing, and slow maturing – very cool.

Science! Sampling a lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus)


.. and a canary rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) that is suffering from some barotrauma.

When I completed my masters in 2014, I was also fortunate to be able to assist with various field projects, including more hook-and-line sampling, this time as part of a cutthroat/steelhead trout introgression study, and various other salmonid related field efforts that took me to remote and beautiful California and Oregon stream reaches in search of the iconic fish.

This looks like fishing, but it is still science! Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii), or possibly a cutthroat/steelhead hybrid?

North Fork Smith River. One of many beautiful study locations.

Despite my best efforts to make a career out of hook-and-line sampling, eventually I realized that to make the kind of impact I wanted on fisheries conservation I would need to spend less time in the field and more time with fisheries managers.  I accepted a position with the NMFS in Sacramento with the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP).  The San Joaquin River was recently labeled the second most endangered river in the America, and the SJRRP is a valiant effort to restore a 150 mile long section of the river, including reintroducing critically threatened populations of salmon that were extirpated from the basin. But I still manage to get out of the office once in a while.

A non-experimental population Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) that is being prepped to be released into the river to spawn.

The education I received from the Trinity College Environmental Science Department prepared me well to succeed in all of these endeavors.  While all of the professors I met at Trinity College were skilled and caring educators, I would especially like to thank Professors Christoph Geiss and Joan Morrison for going above and beyond any responsibility they had to provide resources and opportunities to their students. As a side note to any current or prospective students who may be reading this: take advantage of the Environmental Science field trips that the department offers.  I was fortunate to go on two of them, and can attest that they are wonderful learning opportunities as well as a lot of fun!

Alumni News – Simon Bunyan (’13)

simon 3 - smallDuring my final semester at Trinity, I was thinking of a way to procrastinate analyzing some soil samples for a weekend. Just to savor every reading you know? I asked a friend what they were up to and it turned out our Career Center was hosting a free trip to Washington, DC to meet successful Trinity alumni. I figured…free trip to DC. Why not. At this point, I hadn’t put much thought into what I was doing post-graduation. I had some field experience at Trinity and spent my summers in a cancer research lab back home in Chicago, so I figured I’d probably go do that full-time.

It was through the DC trip that I was fortunate enough to meet with a Trinity alumna, Eleanor Kerr ’81, who helped me spark an idea. Working in DC wasn’t originally in my thoughts, but she made me think about the necessity for those who work in policy to have a solid foundation in the sciences—something that is more evident now than ever. With her help, I was able to gain an internship at a boutique lobbying firm, Kountoupes Denham, where I covered a broad portfolio of issues on the Hill and wrote memos on legislation for our clients. Here, I was able to build a foundation on policy and the way our government works (or doesn’t, since this was right before the 2013 government shutdown).

From there, I wanted to combine my science and policy knowledge and got an internship at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)—specially, with the Chemicals and Environmental Health Team. The task was an Executive Order issued by the President on improving chemical facility safety and security in response to a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. I worked on a team that coordinated with federal agencies and stakeholders to generate actionable ideas on making these facilities safer in terms of worker protection, environmental safety, and national security. Our final deliverable, after a long period of public commenting and stakeholder engagement, was a report to the President.simon 4 - small

My time at CEQ honed one of the tools that Trinity helped me develop—writing. Having the ability to work with CEQ’s communications and outreach teams prepared me for my next opportunity of writing speeches for Gina McCarthy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  On a small team, I had the privilege of composing and guiding Administrator McCarthy’s messaging on landmark environmental policies such as the Climate Action Plan, the Clean Power Plan, and the Waters of the United States Rule. Relying on our scientists and the integrity of the scientific method, we knew that climate change was a public health issue—and we connected these policies with the people around the country who needed them—the concerned mothers of children who have asthma, the families without clean drinking water, and the elderly.simon 1 - small

Working in close proximity for a member of Cabinet made me want to take the dive into federal service. Up to this point, I saw what the Obama Administration had accomplished and I wanted in. My most recent step took me to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE’s EERE), where I was a political appointee on the team of the Acting Assistant Secretary. Here, I want to talk about everything this office has accomplished because it is nothing short of amazing:

At $2 billion a year, DOE’s EERE is one of the largest government clean energy R&D funders in the world. And through its resources in the national labs, universities, and private sector partnerships, EERE has been ushering in a clean energy revolution. Since 2008, due to EERE’s work, land-based wind power has decreased in cost by 41%, utility-scale solar PV has decreased in cost by 64%, EV batteries have decreased in cost by 73%, and type-A LED bulbs have decreased in cost by 94%. And all this while these industries and products thrive.

On the Acting Assistant Secretary’s team, I was able to work on issues that had macro-level impacts—like pushing out our Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) that lead to amazing innovation, and promulgating appliance standards that will save 3 billion tons of carbon emissions. But some of the most affirming experiences were seeing impacts on a personal level—like veterans graduating from our Solar Ready Vets program, where EERE connects veterans with the solar industry, preparing them for new, successful careers, or helping with a Solar in Your Community Challenge, where EERE facilitates a competition to provide low-income communities with solar power, so they won’t have to make that choice between a utility bill or groceries.simon 2 - small

I was able to start this journey because of the education I received from Trinity, the kindness of Trinity alumni, and the desire to be with those who like to push the needle. I am deeply grateful I got to cut my teeth on public service at the Department of Energy. Serving as an appointee of President Barack Obama and working under Secretary Ernest Moniz have been some of the great honors of my young life. Since my time at Trinity and since then, I’ve had the privilege of learning from and working alongside passionate, intelligent, dedicated people who care deeply about the direction in which this nation and the world moves. I hope to continue pushing that needle in the right direction and making it into future blogs that Professor Geiss categorizes as “generally cool stuff.”

Alumni News – Colby Tucker (’09)

This is the latest post in a series of alumni portraits. If you would like to tell us about life after graduation, send me a quick note and you’ll be featured next.

This is not one of the heroic pictures that Colby submitted with his post. This is a young Colby in Iceland, thoroughly enjoying dried fish - an Icelandic delicacy.

This is not one of the heroic pictures that Colby submitted with his post. It shows a young Colby in Iceland, thoroughly enjoying dried fish – an Icelandic delicacy.

In 2009, I emerged from the womb of Trinity ENVS bright eyed and without a clue how I was I going to put ENVS 275 to work (Methods, duh). Three field trips with Christoph and Co. and a semester in New Zealand convinced me that field science was a neat way to understand and view the world. With that in mind, and with the suggestion from fellow bantam, Isabel Gottlieb (’09), I joined a biological anthropology project in Costa Rica as a field technician. While biological anthropology is awfully similar to primatology, the only thing I knew about primatology was a person named Jane Goodall. I was on-board for the adventure and the exposure to a devoted, longitudinal field study. We studied white-faced capuchin monkeys who were as habituated as New York pigeons—important to be able to make behavioral observations and, as a bonus for me, allow me to snap some of my best photos. I lived in very close quarters with six other field technicians and I eventually began to wonder if the monkeys were an elaborate foil for the UCLA researcher to study human behavior. So I made the jump to a different group of monkeys—high schoolers.

Colby's favorite monkey.

Colby’s favorite monkey.

For the next three academic years, I taught chemistry and environmental science at the Pomfret School in Pomfret, CT. I felt at home back in the classroom and enjoyed modifying many of the lessons I received from Trinity professors just a couple of years prior. Also, I now had the summer months to jump back into field research mode. One summer I worked in Wyoming on an ungulate migration study collecting plant samples. Another summer I worked in northern California conducting baseline monitoring for a riparian restoration project. I loved every minute of being out in the field and returning to base at the end of the day. I enjoyed being a part of the niche community of scientists, project managers, and community members who invested themselves in these projects and care deeply about the outcome.

Acidifying samples in Alaska.

Acidifying samples in Alaska.

But then I got the itch. I wanted to have a project of my own. So I returned to school and enrolled in the Master’s program at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES). Here my thesis focused on biogeochemistry in Alaskan estuaries, but I, perhaps to the dismay of my advisor, focused on much more than just my thesis. I pursued course work in regulating energy development, methods of land conservation, remote sensing techniques, and more. I met fascinating and motivated classmates from a host of backgrounds with interests varying from Alaskan subsistence rights to palm oil development in the Philippines to the US energy market. With these new skills, knowledge, and connections, I felt I had a duty to protect and manage the environment I had studied and explored since my time at Trinity. Working in government was a logical transition and I pursued the Presidential Management Fellowship. The PMF is one of several fellowships offered by the federal government to develop those with advanced degrees into government leaders. Fortunately, I was accepted and found a placement working for the Environmental Protection Agency in Region 9’s Enforcement Division.

Agent Colby at an undisclosed location off the coast of California.

Agent Colby at an undisclosed location off the coast of California.

I now find myself on the 14th floor of a high rise in San Francisco wearing sunglasses, in part because of the low hanging winter sun and in part to remind me of the earlier days (better days?) working outside. The EPA keeps me in the office mostly, but as a case developer and inspector for Section 402 of the Clean Water Act I sometimes get to travel to various parts of EPA’s Region 9 (CA, NV, AZ, HI, and the Pacific Islands). This travel is to inspect those facilities that have (or should have) NPDES permits, which means I visit some of our dirtiest places. I’ve inspected industrial facilities in Hawaii, oil drilling platforms in southern California, shipyards around San Francisco Bay, and municipal wastewater treatment plants and collection systems in various places around the region. It’s my job to ensure these facilities are properly permitted and that they are following their permit—staying within their effluent limits, monitoring and reporting their discharge, employing best management practices, and whatever other stipulations their permits prescribe. As a case developer, I compile the evidence of non-compliance and work with lawyers to develop an enforcement action to compel these entities to follow their permit. It is indeed a slow process, but the end result protects human health and the environment—EPA’s catch phrase.
As a PMF though, my time in this role is limited. Part of the fellowship is that I have to conduct a “rotation” in another EPA division or another federal agency altogether. While the details of this rotation are still not set, there is a good chance you will find me next at NOAA or NASA or perhaps at the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ), if I am lucky.

Alumni News – Brittney Payton (’12)

Brittney paytonIt’s been over six years since I graduated from dear old Trinity, and I’ve been lucky enough to find some pretty interesting work.  I spent a year teaching Biology, Earth and Environmental Science, and Physical Science at John A. Holmes High School (where more often than not I was mistaken for a student) and really enjoyed helping others explore science and technology.  I remember pulling up photos from Geology field trips with Trinity’s Environmental Science Program, as well as using some of my old textbooks to create material for my classes.

After teaching for that year, I realized that I wanted to get back into a more hands-on type profession and applied for and accepted a position as a Laboratory Assessor I at AASHTO re:source (formerly AASHTO Materials Reference Laboratory).  As a Laboratory Assessor I, I was able to travel throughout the US to evaluate the compliance of construction materials testing laboratories against national standards of testing.  Scopes of testing covered include soil, aggregate, hot mix asphalt, iron and steel, and plastic pipe.  I finally got to see Shelby tubes again!  I was essentially a laboratory inspector (fear my wrath! But not really) and inspecting was the name of the game.

I got to visit some pretty cool places as an Assessor with my favorite being Phoenix, Arizona and my least favorite being Lubbock, Texas.  Some of my work trips were exciting and others about as exciting as watching tumbleweeds blow across the road (which I did see).  Once, I was confined to my hotel in Dallas, Texas when they got a little snow (and subsequently shut everything down), and another time, I drove through flooded areas in Denver, CO (after pulling over and freaking out in the car) when they got a ton of rain.

I met a lot of interesting people as an Assessor and learned a lot more about soil (and aggregate and etc) than I ever imagined.  I also got to say that I watched people wash dirt for a living and when has that ever been something you could legitimately say and mean?

Just last January, I applied for and accepted a position as a Quality Analyst I at AASHTO re:source and I have traded in my traveling shoes for comfy desk slippers.  Now, instead of traveling to the laboratories and assessing them for conformance, I work with laboratories to resolve any issues that were noted during their assessments.  My customer service skills are on Level 3000 J.  I am constantly learning and adapting in my field as standards for testing and our understanding of those standards change.

I am grateful for all of the experiences I had at Trinity with such an awesome department.  I truly believe that the wonderful guidance and instruction (and the BBQs) really have helped me to succeed in my endeavors.  I hope to be able to visit soon!

Brittney Payton 2

Decisions, decisions …

Any way you look at it - bwA few weeks ago, Jon and I got an excited e-mail from Kelsey Semrod (’12): not only did she get accepted to Duke, but Yale and Michigan also try to get her as a graduate student.
Should Kelsey end up at Yale to join Ben Butterworth (’08), Colby Tucker (’09), and Maggie Thomas (’10) we might think about a new “Bantams to Bulldogs” program.

Congratulations, Kelsey!

P.S. Thanks Colby, how could I forget Ben. What would that little school down there in New Haven do without us? :-)

Simon Bunyan ’13 accepts White House Internship

Simon Bunyan '13

Simon Bunyan ’13

Good news from ENVS alumnus Simon Bunyan ’13, who was recently offered an Internship with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Since graduation Simon has worked for a lobbying firm before applying for the White House internship. According to Simon he was offered the position because of his strong academic background in the sciences and his previous lobbying experience.
So, if you are in the DC area – say Hi to Simon, and the rest of you here at Trinity: stop slacking and get back to studying!   :-)

Congratulations  Simon!

Summer Research Roundup


The official summer research program ended last week with a big barbecue (Profs Bill Church and Christoph Geiss, head-barbecuists) and summer research presentations. ENVS was very well represented by Dan and Justin, who looked a bit nervous before their talk,
but did a very fine job telling us about their ongoing research in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Now that their standard solutions have finally arrived Justin is eager to get started on his handful of samples.
Rose and Sarah have been working as interior designers, furnishing Cameron Douglass’ lab, and have been kept busy making artificial weeds.
For all of you who don’t have enough naturally occurring weeds in your back yard: all you need is a few sticks, tin snips, blotting paper, and two students who carefully cut out each leaf by hand. My request for naturalistic serrated edges was nixed. Cameron’s weeds have a total of six square blotting paper leaves.
No fake weeds in Christoph Geiss’ lab. Counting pollen is exhausting, as one can see:
and Jami only has twenty five thousand measurements to go. Almost done, I’d say.
At the same time, guest-researcher Kelsey is busy re-learning ArcGIS in the lab. A dozen more maps and she’ll be done as well. Kelsey, just a heads-up: we’ll need the lab in September to teach Geology again, so quit slacking!

Publish, Perish – or Enjoy the Food at McCookout

Kelsey Semrod (’12) of “I want to change my adviser!” fame came for a visit this week to work on her manuscript with Jon Gourley. Kelsey’s senior thesis dealt with heavy metal concentrations in Park River sediments, and Kelsey and Jon had been working to publish the study since last May. After graduation Kelsey spent a few months swatting mosquitoes in northern Minnesota (working for Outward Bound) before getting a job with MicroStrategy as a product manager.
Officially Kelsey came to do research – unofficially she came because she missed McCookout, and her advisers. She even wanted her picture taken with Jon Gourley and Christoph Geiss.
After seeing the picture Christoph was seriously considering asking Jon for his stylish hat. But then – with hair like this you might as well show it off! Thanks for visiting, Kelsey!