Preserving the Animal Kingdom
Amanda Peters ’16 grew up thinking she wanted to be a veterinarian. What she discovered at Washington College is how much broader her impact could be as a champion for global biodiversity.
“My goal coming into college was to be able to make a difference for animals,” Peters says. “That’s still my goal, but I’ll be going about it in a different way.”
The biology and environmental science major will enroll this fall at UMass Boston to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental biology. Working under the mentorship of Doug Woodhams, Peters will continue the amphibian research that she undertook as part of her senior capstone project at Washington College. Her investigations were sparked by a sharp spike in mortality rates that Katherine Wares ’14 first noticed among salamanders inhabiting a pond at Chino Farms, site of the Chester River Field Research Station.
In a careful and methodical way that bodes well for a career in research, Peters began gathering data for her senior thesis a year early. “I wanted to assess the field and survey the ponds at Chino Farms for mortality,” she says. Working under the mentorship of Robin Van Meter, assistant professor of environmental science and biology, she collected sediment samples from the three ponds and then recreated those environments in the lab for the salamanders she reared under controlled conditions.
“One of our original thoughts was that there might be a heavy metal contamination, so I looked for that in the sediments. While there was a significant difference in the samples, it was not correlated to heavy metals. We didn’t pinpoint why we are seeing such high mortality rates locally, but hopefully someone adopting the project after me will be able to do that.”
Why should we care about the colorful little amphibians? Peters says that salamanders are the proverbial canary in the coalmine. “Salamanders are significant indicator species, because they’re very sensitive to environmental degradation. It tells us a lot when we see huge mortality rates globally. It’s kind of scary that people aren’t paying more attention to this. When we see huge spikes in mortality rates among salamanders, eventually it will wind up impacting us.”
Peters has the résumé to impress any graduate school admissions committee. She completed two externships—one at the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center near Annapolis, and another with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. With a NOAA internship and Washington College grant funding, she spent three months in California studying otter behavior and oyster restoration. As a John S. Toll Fellow, she worked with Professor Jennie Carr doing hummingbird research, and then presented that research at professional conferences including the Regional Bird Banding Conference in North East, Maryland, the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society in Philadelphia, and the Kappa Alpha Omicron meeting in Puerto Rico. And with classmate Caitlin Kerr ’16, Peters established a chapter of KAO, an environmental honor society, on campus.
“Dr. Carr played a huge part in developing and fostering my understanding of what it means to be a good researcher,” Peters notes. “I would get up and be at the bird banding station first thing in the morning, every morning. It was a lot of hands-on experience—something I never expected to do as a freshman.”
During her formal interview at UMass Boston, Peters discerned a learning environment “bizarrely similar” to what she experienced in the Toll Science Center. “In a brand new science building on the Dorchester Harbor, people were sitting around, studying and talking in front of white boards,” she says. “I was welcomed and encouraged by everyone I met. That’s part of the reason I chose Washington College. When I was a prospective student, Professor Martin Connaughton sat and talked with me for an hour on a Friday afternoon. We got to nerd out together. I had that same kind of experience at UMass.”
The school is funding her doctoral studies for four years with a full assistantship, and has offered her a mini-fellowship to study mosquito larvae and microenvironments this summer. This project is part of ongoing research into the Zika virus. She has also been awarded the prestigious Coasts and Communities IGERT Fellowship for her graduate studies.
“I am beyond excited,” Peters says. “When I first came to Washington College, I had no idea I would be where I am in my life right now, but I know that someday I hope to be leading my own research team.”