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Looking Toward the Future: Drexel Students Lead Academy Into Its 200th Year

January 23, 2012

“I’ve always liked playing in the mud,” says Viktoria Unger, a research assistant in the Patrick Center for Environmental Research and a master’s student in Drexel University’s Department of Environmental Science. While her work at the Academy is far more complex than playing in the mud—she studies the buildup of sediment in coastal wetlands—the recent affiliation of the Academy and Drexel has allowed Unger to follow her passion for environmental research. She is one of many Drexel students already benefitting from this partnership.

Drexel student Viktoria Unger is interning at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel Unviersity

The affiliation presents myriad opportunities for future students to connect academic research with real-world experience, strengthening their learning while raising their competitiveness in a challenging job market. Since the 1990s, the Academy of Natural Sciences has worked with Drexel’s co-op program, which helps students obtain resume-enhancing employment in practical, major-related positions before graduation.

The formal partnership between the institutions now gives the co-op program tremendous room to grow. Patrick Center Director Dr. David Velinsky says he hopes the involvement of Drexel co-ops will expand in the next few years.

“This is a great clinic for experiential learning and future job opportunities,” he says.

Ian O’Malley, a sophomore biology major at Drexel, is undertaking his work co-op in the Academy’s Diatom Herbarium. At the beginning of his co-op, he entered data on already-completed research; he now takes digital pictures of microscope samples, studying and grouping the samples into species. This research will eventually be used in the North American Diatom Database.

“I have a sense of pride about my work,” he says. “I can see real-world results from my research, and that’s pretty great.”

Drexel student Ian O'Malley gets hands-on experience at the Academy

The guidance O’Malley received at Drexel prepared him for the level of professional laboratory work he is responsible for at the Academy. His now largely self-driven work has improved his confidence with laboratory and microscope work, he says. He will bring this confidence to his studies at Drexel when he returns for the academic portion of his sophomore year, he adds.

Like O’Malley, Unger believes in the importance of merging academic study and professional experience. Her master’s thesis at Drexel focuses on determining the rate of carbon storage in coastal marshes in the context of the effects of climate change and rising sea levels. This work is an ideal match for her Academy work on understanding the ecosystem factors influencing sediment buildup in coastal wetlands.

Unger says that her choice to pursue her master’s at Drexel ultimately was not a choice at all. Having already interned at the Patrick Center for several months when she was considering her options for graduate study, she recognized that Drexel’s curriculum would fit perfectly into her research here at the Academy. Plus, attending Drexel for her master’s study allowed her to stay in Philadelphia while continuing to work with people she respects on research she loves.

“I wanted to expand on existing partnerships [between Drexel and the Academy],” she says. “I liked the people here, the research is here, the funding is here, and there was significant opportunity present in studying at Drexel to expand on the work I was already doing at the Academy.”

Unger, O’Malley and their classmates are an essential part of the Academy and Drexel’s successful collaboration, and their work will enable them to contribute to the future development of their fields. Unger hopes to become a research scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency, and O’Malley is intrigued by the possibility of field research after hearing about the “amazing adventures” of Academy scientists. Regardless of where their paths lead, these students are leaving meaningful foundations of collaboration and research for future young researchers to build upon. 

                                        --Michelle Chikaonda, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University