Learn more about the SPARK STEM program and the impact on Northern Virginia grade school students.
By: Calil Davis & Keosha Quigley
From a young age, Jon Clark knew he had an interest in biology.
“I was always outside flipping over rocks, looking for bugs and worms,” said Clark, whose dinosaur obsession morphed into his current love of birds.
Clark always found himself looking through field guides and encyclopedias. He even recalls being 4-years-old and specifically identifying a scarlet macaw, a South American parrot species, in a pre-school entrance interview. The interviewers were very impressed because they only expected him to say “bird”.
This passion for nature and animals intensified over time. While at Mason, Clark has taken every opportunity to fully immerse himself in conservation and environmental biology.
Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation
In 2015, Clark spent his fall semester at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC) in Front Royal, VA. The semester long program, a collaboration between Mason and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), prepares students to work professionally in conservation and biodiversity.
The students spent time learning a variety of topics in the classroom, while participating in workshops with scientists, going on field trips and gaining work experience in a weekly practicum. Clark created a blog to document his experiences in the program.
“We spent one day out of the week working in the field that we thought we might want to go into,” said Clark, who got the chance to work with ecologist Bill McShea in McShea’s conservation ecology office. He got to participate in fieldwork and data analysis on several of McShea’s long term projects which study the role of oak trees in eastern deciduous forests.
Clark then followed up his time at SMSC by spending his 2016 spring break in Costa Rica to fulfill the lab component of his BIOL 440 class. Clark and other students spent the week observing various tropical ecosystems and habitats.
During one part of the trip, he remembers standing toe-to-toe (almost literally) with a swarm of army ants.
“These ants move out and carpet the jungle floor, looking for food,” Clark said, “Most animals just get out of their way, but they’re always followed by the most beautiful birds. So our tour guide and I just couldn’t resist getting a good look at the birds and waiting until the last possible minute to get out of the way even though everyone else had backed away much earlier.”
Researching with the Luther Lab
Toward the spring semester’s end, Clark reached out to the trip’s organizer and secured a research position with Mason biology professor David Luther through OSCAR, the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, & Research. The two spent the summer observing grassland bird populations in Northern Virginia to see how ambient noise affects breeding behavior. The research was broken into two parts: territory mapping of the Eastern Meadowlark and Grasshopper Sparrow species; and monitoring community numbers for all grassland birds.
Though they’re still analyzing the results, Luther’s past research found that male birds tend to alter their song in louder areas which reduces their bandwidth and could essentially make them “less sexy” to females.
“So far, our analysis has suggested these species are less capable of defending a large territory when it’s loud,” Clark said in an OSCAR blog post.
Clark looks forward to diving into a full-time ecology career after grad school. He and Luther are also planning to publish their research in a journal.
Tell us about your own experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org!
By: Keosha Quigley
“Women can do anything if they put their minds to it,” mathematical sciences major Megan Craig asserts, a pi pendant dangling from her silver necklace.
Craig first noticed her knack for math in the fifth grade. While in class, her teacher asked her to use the board to explain her solution to a problem. Craig was summoned because she used a method her teacher had not.
After that experience, Craig realized her skill and desire to help others through education. Several years later, she joined George Mason University’s class of 2017 and began courses in the College of Science.
“I was originally an astronomy major, but I struggled with physics,” says Craig, whose ease with calculus recalled her childhood aspiration. She decided to pursue being a math teacher.
Craig switched her major to math and started taking courses that excited and challenged her. She color-coded notes and did not hesitate to ask questions in class. Craig soon found herself on Mason’s Dean’s List.
In fall 2015, while reading through her emails, she saw a message telling her she qualified for the Center for Global Education’s Oxford Semester program, Mason’s most prestigious study abroad opportunity.
Each fall and spring semester, a select group of undergraduate and graduate students attend CGE’s partnership program on Oxford University’s venerable campus. Participants take courses based on their majors and concentrations, while joining their professors for weekly one-on-one discussions about their coursework and essays. These discussions, called tutorials, are a distinct part of Oxford’s learning system.
Craig initially worried about her tutorials because it’s rare for students to take math and language courses concurrently.
“I was worried that it wasn’t the right decision,” says Craig, who is also a Japanese minor.
Craig overcame her initial apprehension and left for Oxford in the spring of 2016.
Peers and Persistence
During her time at Oxford, she found motivation in her new global community as she supplemented her academic rigor with campus explorations and weekend excursions. Study groups with friends and dinners in Christ Church College (one of Oxford’s 38 colleges) provided comfort throughout the experience.
“I was always able to talk to someone if I was struggling,” says Craig, “I had some friends from back [home] that I would chat with on Skype, so that helped me keep my sanity.”
At the time, Craig was one of two Mason math majors in the Oxford program. She couldn’t reach out to her classmates for help as readily as she had at Mason.
“It helped me realize that I need to go to office hours a lot more,” Craig says, optimistically. “If the concept is really complicated, the teacher will be able to rearrange the definition so that I can understand it better.”
In her Japanese class, Craig’s instructor recommended she attend some of the Japanese Student Association’s events. During the semester, Craig attended two of the events and extended her cultural knowledge.
“They would pick a random topic that has to do with Japan [and] an expert in the field would come explain it,” says Craig, who hopes to partake in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) after graduating from Mason.
Tying it all Together
When the semester ended, Craig wasn’t only left with memories, she has finished assignments that reflect the program’s rigor and display her ability. Craig says the program fostered independence and improved her studies.
“Now I say, ‘If I can survive doing those courses, why can’t I do the same for whatever’s ahead of me?’” she says.
The Oxford Semester Program gave Craig challenges that ultimately helped her find her inner strength. In the male-dominated mathematics world, it’s important for women to focus on empowerment, a motivating force for Craig.
“I really like stories when there’s a girl that’s strong, but she has her moments when she does need to rely on other people,” says Craig. “Despite there being odds against [her], it all comes out good in the end.”
After completing her Mason degree, Craig hopes to use her mathematical knowledge and Japanese background to help the world.
Tell us about your own experiences at email@example.com!
Alumna Katharine Dickson chats about her published research and what led to her PhD pursuit at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Mason Degree: BS, Biology 2014
Career Goals: Ideally, I’d like to be a professor, though in the current job market I am also considering spending time in biotech (maybe even starting my own biotech company), investigating patent law and science policy, and consulting as a biology expert.
Favorite Mason Memory: Besides graduation, with “Happy” by Pharrell Williams as the soundtrack? Probably [participating in Mason’s] Biology Research Semester.
Professionally, I’m most proud of…my research publication. Also, right now I’m working on a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship application with a prospective advisor. It looks to be evolving into my dissertation topic.
Find me on Facebook!
Alumnus Michael Neeely sat down with us to talk about career shifts and his retirement in our latest Alumni Profile.
Mason Degree: BS, Chemistry 1976
Occupation: Retired Analytical Support Group manager at CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company
My favorite Mason memory is…being fortunate enough to have Dr. Robert F. Cozzens as my college mentor and having the opportunity to support his research at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) while I was attending Mason.
Professionally, I’m most proud because…before I retired, I was part of a multi-disciplinary team at Hanford, whose mission is to characterize and clean up one of the most contaminated (both chemically and radiologically) sites in our nation. The Hanford team is developing and deploying state of the art pump and treat (P&T) technologies for remediating contaminated ground water, and then re-injecting the clean water back into the aquifer. This cleanup project is still ongoing; however, when the cleanup is complete, and the Hanford site is restored to its original pristine condition, I will be proud to say that I was part of the team that achieved that remarkable accomplishment.
I advise current students to…maintain contact with fellow students and faculty. I can’t stress it enough – network, network, network! It will be instrumental in a career pursuit.
An interesting fact about me is that…I was an avid runner, running in marathons (26.2 miles) and ultra-marathons (50 miles). However, in 2011, I had surgery on my cervical spine and my lumbar spine, and the doctor advised me not to run again. So, I now walk for approximately 15 miles every day. I use my walking time for my prayer and meditation time.
The extended COS interview with Michael Neely:
Alumna Heather Bloemhard discusses how she adapts to work as an introvert in our latest Alumni Profile.
Mason Degree: BS, Physics, Astronomy 2008
Occupation: John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society (AAS)
I chose my majors because…I wanted an in-depth understanding of how the world works.
My favorite Mason memory is…The Physics Club and the Chemistry Club put together a science night with lots of fun demonstrations. This was probably my first attempt at participating in an event to communicate science with the general audience.
Professionally, I’m most proud of…the fact that I have earned a Ph.D. in Physics, and have been able to pursue a career in science policy.
I advise current students to…take advantage of the breadth of opportunities GMU has to offer, even if it’s not related to your degree. You might be surprised at how useful these things end up being to your career.
Alum Francis Aguisanda shares fond memories of life as a Mason student in our latest Alumni Profile.
Mason Degree: BS, Biology 2014
Occupation: Research fellow at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
I chose Mason for my Bachelor’s because of…the wealth of diversity among its students. Additionally, I was impressed by Mason’s growing commitment to supporting undergraduate research.
My favorite Mason memory is…the entire 2012 election season. It was so much fun participating in the political process with such energized college students.
In my future career, I’d like to…undertake stem cell research full-time as a research scientist, and use discoveries made in the laboratory to develop therapeutics that physicians can take directly into the clinic.
I advise current students to…perform undergraduate research! Whether you’re thinking of graduate school, medical school, or entering the workforce, having meaningful research experiences will do nothing but significantly boost your resume. But, most of all, enjoy your time in college–take fun classes, meet new people, and get out of your comfort zone!
Connect with me on LinkedIn!
Alum David Amarasinghe shares fond memories of life as a Mason student in our latest Alumni Profile.
Mason Degree: BS, Mathematics 2008
Occupation: Kaplan MCAT instructor
I chose Mason for my Bachelor’s because…two of my older sisters graduated from Mason with majors in Foreign Language. I also loved visiting the area growing up and was really impressed by what had changed when I came to visit for orientation.
My favorite Mason memory is…dorm life. Most of us still stay in touch. The community we made in our dorms is a huge part of my interest in becoming a member of the COS alumni chapter.
Professionally, I’m most proud of…my students’ success and the historical and anecdotal connections I have drawn across the sciences for my students. Their expressions of comprehension (and sometimes wonder) are incredibly satisfying.
I advise current students to…maintain contact with classmates, stay involved in college-related groups like the COS alumni chapter, and join online groups on Facebook or LinkedIn. Participate instead of being a wallflower. It can be very difficult to rebuild those connections if you lose contact.
Connect with me on LinkedIn!
Inside this Volume
- 2016 Summer Camps at Mason
- Professional Development Opportunities
- Internship Opportunities
- Periodic Elements No. 13
- Stem Accelerator programs, and much more…
About COS LINKS
COS LINKS is a list of resources for teachers and students and also provides guidance for teachers interested in forming partnerships with the College. COS LINKS is a publication of the College of Science (COS) at George Mason University.
For more information, please contact Reid Schwebach, College of Science Outreach Coordinator, at 703-993-7028 or firstname.lastname@example.org.