Commencement May 19

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From Digital Maps to Real-World Impact: A First-Year Student's Bahamas Research Adventure

As Jessica Yesensky ’26 toured San Salvador Island in the Bahamas with Dr. Trevor Browning, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, and Dr. Daniel Kjar, Associate Professor of Biology, her face lit up as she recognized places from the digital maps of the island that she scoured to complete her research. Yesensky, a first-year Elmira College student at the time, was invited to present her first-year research in San Salvador at the 2023 Gerace Research Centre Conference alongside her professors, graduate students from other universities, and industry professionals. The experience, in Yesensky’s words, “not to be dramatic, but it was INCREDIBLE. It was really cool.”

Yesensky, a Biochemistry and Environmental Science major, was the youngest presenter at the conference. Her work focused on the erosion vulnerability of San Salvador, which is based on Browning’s work indexing the erosion vulnerability of tropical islands.

Yesensky chose EC because of the focus on undergraduate research, which is encouraged as early as the first year. She discovered Browning’s research while working on a microplastics research project with Dr. Michael Selig, Assistant Professor of Chemistry. After meeting Browning and talking with him about his work, she said, “I like this way better.”

It took a lot of guidance and individual attention at first, but Yesensky stayed determined and gathered enough data to put together an abstract ahead of the conference. The data she collected and analyzed creates a picture that residents of San Salvador and developers can use for conscientious land development as the population increases and becomes more urban.

“This is a critical issue in the tropics as, over the next 20 years, their population will grow and represent a little over half of the global population,” explained Browning, who gave the keynote presentation on this topic at the conference. “Issues with erosion arise when we have huge population booms and it’s especially important in the tropics where communities often rely on ecotourism. Yet downstream ecosystems such as coral reefs are fragile and sediment intolerant.”

Originally, Yesensky had prepared to give a poster presentation where attendees could come and ask her questions and talk informally with her about her work. However, when she arrived at the conference, organizers asked those with posters if they would give a five-minute presentation, speaking to the conference attendees for five, uninterrupted minutes. After much encouragement, Yesensky decided to give it a go.

“I was really scared because I didn't prepare for that, literally at all,” shared Yesensky. “Everyone there knew I was scared because at this point I had made friends with all the people there. And then I did it. And it was really great. After the fact, everyone was hyping me up. They were all so proud of me.”

“This was obviously a great opportunity for Jess to get her name out there,” added Browning. “If she's thinking about grad school, it's an excellent resume builder. And it's a good opportunity for her to talk to people. That's how you get your first job, that's how you get your first interview, or whatever it is, by building these connections.”

Beyond the conference, the trip included many firsts for Yesensky, who had never traveled outside of the United States before. She went cave exploring, traveled in a propeller plane, and snorkeled off of a boat.

While some of the trip attendees took a day to relax, Yesensky went with Browning and Kjar to explore the inner jungle of the island and clear an overgrown trail. Machetes were also a first.

“I loved seeing Jess’s face going through areas and seeing how she recognized them,” said Browning. “She had stared at a map on a computer screen for six months and then we’re standing on the island and she said, ‘There should be a wall here.’ It’s always a cool connection for students to make.”

That student experience is at the heart of EC’s long tradition with the Research Centre. Founded by Donald T. Gerace and Kathy Gerace, a former EC Archeology professor, EC students began taking field courses there in the early 1970s. These trips were part of the origin of EC’s three-term schedule, which facilitates student travel in a shortened spring term.

“As time has progressed, we’ve kept up the field course and our students stay for four weeks, which is much longer than other schools,” explained Kjar. “Our students cover absolutely everything; history, geology, archaeology, and biology. Everything. We really keep them busy while we're there.”

In the 1980s, the Centre began holding conferences that alternated between biology and geology. The two conferences were combined and are now held every other year. EC often sends students to the conference, giving them a chance to gain insights and skills outside of the classroom.

Now in her sophomore year, Yesensky is continuing to complete research with Browning, shifting her attention to map data on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Browning is taking a Term III course there in the spring of 2024 and Yesensky hopes to have another “incredible” experience.

This story was first featured in the 2023 edition of Campus Magazine. Click here to see more!

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