Undergraduate Research with the Department of Environmental Science

Career Administrator

Research experience as an undergraduate can be a great way to build your resume, and gain practical knowledge about a certain field of interest. Research experience elevates a student’s credentials and looks great on internship, job, or graduate school applications.

The Department of Environmental Sciences at UVA offers several opportunities for undergraduate students to gain research experience. Most of these are with graduate students already working on a project. However, there are some independent research opportunities also offered. http://www.evsc.virginia.edu/research/undergraduate-research-opportunities/

Below is a list of graduate student research projects that undergraduate students can be involved with;

Alice Besterman



I am generally interested in intertidal coastal ecosystems, especially the distributions and trophic interactions of organisms in those environments. My current work focuses on the way in which macroalgal mats blanketing mudflats impact the spatial organization of trophic interactions among shorebirds, their benthic invertebrate prey such as polychaetes, snails, and amphipods, and the microalgal biofilms on which those invertebrates feed. I also study how these spatial dynamics result in animals acting as biovectors for marine bacteria which are pathogenic to humans (Vibrio spp.)

Mentees would gain experience with microscopy by handling and identifying benthic invertebrates and macroalgae. Mentees would also gain experience with general lab techniques such as drying and weighing organic samples. Mentees may also gain experience with spectrophotometry, the method used to quantify benthic microalgae. Mentees can begin immediately (fall 2017) and continue until work is completed, likely sometime next spring 2018. For now only volunteer positions are available; however, pay may become available dependent on funding.


Kate LeCroy



In the big picture, we want to “save the bees” — we’re seeking to understand the status of native and exotic solitary bees in Virginia. We’re doing this by interacting with citizen scientists all over the Commonwealth to collect nests of solitary bees, screen bees for disease, and estimate population abundances. The effects of stressors such as habitat loss, pesticide use, introduced species, and disease dynamics on bee populations are becoming increasingly well-documented, especially for the honeybee and some bumblebees. However, we still have not evaluated impacts of these stressors on wild populations of many native bee species that also provide critical pollination services to both our crops and our natural ecosystems. Mason bees (genus Osmia) are of particular concern, and we seek to track their populations. Mason bees readily nest in empty cavities in nature, and they have been found to use “bee hotels.” Bee hotels provide cavities for solitary bees as nesting resources, and they are popular among the public. These bee hotels may be of great utility for many of Virginia’s native bee species that are losing nesting resources due to habitat destruction and other pressures. However, bee hotels may inadvertently attract more non-native bees than native species, and they might serve as “hotspots” for disease spread among its inhabitants.

Bee hotels were distributed to 100 participants in spring 2017 and collected June 2017 for analysis of population distributions, relative abundances, and disease. This data will hopefully reveal information about the status of native and exotic wild bees. Students who are interested in gaining hands-on experience with careful dissections, documenting disease spread inside nesting structures, and learning more about native bee nesting habitat structure are encouraged to join our team! A student joining our research group will assist us in opening up bee hotels that were placed out all over the state. Mason bees will be in a dormant (inactive) phase, and we will open up their cocoons for species identification and disease screening. The student will also have the opportunity to visit a UVa Environmental Sciences field station and meet other research faculty and students, schedules permitting. Most importantly, the student will be considered an integral part of the project’s success while receiving high-quality mentorship


Ariel Firebaugh



Artificial light pollution is a growing ecological threat. Streetlights, overlit buildings, skyglow, and other anthropogenic sources of light pollution already affect 20% of the terrestrial surface of the Earth, and are increasing spatially at a rate of 6% per year. Ecologists are only just beginning to understand how light pollution may be impacting individual species, their larger communities, and ecosystem function; however, the biological impacts of light pollution are expected to be strong because light/dark cycles serve as critical organizers of biological activities.

Our group studies how arthropods may be affected by light pollution. During summer 2015, we collected insects and other arthropods in plots that received either light pollution (lit) or no light pollution (dark) treatments. We need help identifying these specimens during Spring 2016. Interested students will develop a strong skillset in insect and arthropod identification. No prior experience is required, but an attention to detail and curiosity about the natural world would be a plus!


Kelcy Kent

Ecology/Molecular Ecology


Mangroves make up a vital coastal ecosystem that provides invaluable services such as sediment stabilization, water filtration, wave and storm energy attenuation, and increasing biodiversity/supporting fisheries by acting as a nursery for innumerable aquatic species. Climate shift and global warming has set a path for global ecosystem shifts, one of these being the northward and inland mangrove migration/displacement of salt marshes by mangroves. Many abiotic factors play an important role in determining whether or not new areas can be successfully colonized into a mangrove mangle, but the role of genetic diversity is still largely a mystery.

My current proposed work employs molecular ecology for coastal ecology and population studies. I plan to study reproduction patterns in mangrove populations along the Florida and Texas Gulf Coast in order to assess changes in frequency of self-pollination vs cross-pollination, comparing breeding patterns in new/leading edge populations and historic/within-range populations. I hope such work will aid in predicting future mangrove expansion and colonization, ultimately aiding in the proper management and conservation of northern salt marshes and mangrove forests in response to coastal ecosystem shifts.

Students will be trained in molecular ecology lab skills (DNA extractions, pipetting, making working stocks of DNA, electrophoresis, etc.) and will learn about the application of molecular ecology to large-scale ecological studies. Will mostly entail hands-on lab work and discussing experimental design. Opportunities for field work available depending on student motivation, interests, and summer schedule. If you are interested, please shoot me an e-mail including a brief description of relevant experience or relevant courses, and a summary of availability.


Atticus Stovall



The global aboveground storage of carbon across the Earth’s surface is primarily held in forest ecosystems. Whether you are considering forests from tropical to boreal regions, confident estimates of carbon storage can help us understand forest function and their role in the global carbon cycle. However, our current knowledge of the location of forest carbon has high uncertainty – most plot level carbon measurements are not measurements at all, but estimates based on a small number of accurately measured trees using the difficult and time consuming process of destructive sampling. Clearly, accurate estimates of forest carbon will lead to reduced uncertainty at the global scale, but this goal cannot be realized without a better way to measure the carbon of individual trees.

My research is focused on addressing the high uncertainty of terrestrial measures of forest carbon. I use a newly developed instrument – terrestrial LiDAR – to three-dimensionally model the volume and structure of individual trees for estimating carbon. Detailed models of trees have the potential to revolutionize the way we measure and understand the forest. The novelty of this project and technology has produced several potential research opportunities:

The student will use terrestrial LiDAR to model trees and create local allometric relationships of biomass carbon in the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s SIGEO forest plot. These relationships will be used to model biomass carbon across the forest. The environmental drivers (e.g. topography, competition, etc.) of biomass variation are of particular interest in this research and will be investigated.

The student will use terrestrial LiDAR to model individual tree and forest plot vertical structure in the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s SIGEO forest plot. 14 1/10th ha plots have been measured with LiDAR. The relationship between the structure of individual trees and biomass will be determined at each plot location. The plot level biomass estimates will also be related to plot level vertical forest structure.

I am open to discussing other potential projects involving terrestrial LiDAR that the student may be interested in pursuing.