After initially planning to pursue a career as an educator, Brielle Kwarta instead discovered a passion for research while attending Houghton College in western New York.
As an undergraduate, she immersed herself in a variety of projects that allowed her to apply her mathematical skills to real-world problems, particularly as they relate to the environment.
After graduating in the winter with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Kwarta wanted to gain research experience outside an academic setting before starting graduate school in the fall. She found the perfect opportunity to do just that through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) Program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
The SULI program allows students and recent graduates to perform research under the guidance of laboratory staff scientists on projects supporting the Department of Energy mission.
During her internship, Kwarta used satellite imagery and geospatial techniques to identify potential natural land corridors in East Tennessee. These corridors facilitate the safe movement of animals across the landscape, helping combat habitat fragmentation of wildlife populations and promoting overall biodiversity.
“Through our analysis, we verified the importance of protected areas in a network of wildlife corridors,” Kwarta said. “Our results and methods can advise other similar corridor mapping studies in a regional or small setting.”
For Kwarta, a highlight of the SULI program was the chance to present her research findings at an end-of-semester poster session. “I enjoyed sharing my research with several ORNL staff and learning about the research of my SULI colleagues,” she said.
In addition to the poster session, Kwarta presented at ORNL’s Earth Day event. “It was a great opportunity to introduce the concept and importance of wildlife corridors to a larger audience,” she said. “I was able to include information on how the Oak Ridge Reservation fits within the map of potential wildlife corridors in East Tennessee.”
Through her SULI internship, Kwarta bolstered her knowledge of geographic information systems and gained confidence as a public speaker and science communicator. During the spring semester, SULI interns each delivered a five-minute summary of their research in an Ignite talk format, and Kwarta shared Best Ignite Talk honors with SULI intern Tamar Moss.
“I would undeniably recommend this program for undergraduate scientists,” Kwarta said. “Participants will have an advantage over other young researchers by conducting research at a national laboratory, which will help in graduate school and future job applications. Through this program I met many accomplished scientists, which expanded my networking circle. In addition to being involved in an exciting research project and learning new skills, I also made great friends at the lab.”
When she wasn’t conducting research, Kwarta stayed active. She ran two half-marathons in Knoxville, took part in pickup soccer games held Thursdays evenings at the lab, and spent weekends hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area and Cherokee National Forest. She also volunteered as a tutor at a local YWCA.
Kwarta will be working toward her doctoral degree in the Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management program at the University of Washington. She plans to draw on the GIS knowledge she gained from her time at ORNL.
“After obtaining my Ph.D., I would like to work for either the government or an NGO (nongovernmental organization) and help policymakers with environmental problems, using helpful mathematical and statistical tools to incorporate real data to governmental decisions,” Kwarta said. “Through my career and research, my goal is to help conserve our natural environment.”
The SULI program at ORNL is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).