“I was that kid who would run around with a microscope looking at leaves, playing with spiders, always interested in the way things worked,” said the University of Rhode Island senior from Jamestown.
As she prepares to graduate on May 22 with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, Burns is looking back with fondness for her four years in Kingston.
Her enthusiasm for the natural world became focused primarily on plants during her undergraduate education, but not the plants you might expect. Burns spent two years studying several species of marine plants – seaweed – to learn how they grow and contribute to local algae blooms.
“I loved learning about the complex ecology of these things that you would normally just walk right over,” she said. “It opened my eyes to this whole other facet of the natural world that most people ignore.”
Burns was awarded fellowships during her junior and senior years to conduct research on two varieties of sea lettuce – one with naturally-occurring perforations and one without – to learn how and why the perforations may benefit or hinder their growth and reproduction. She even presented the results of her research at the annual symposium of the Northeast Algal Society two years in a row.
It was her extra-curricular involvement, however, that allowed Burns to blossom. As a freshman, she became president of the student organization Secular URI, a discussion group she helped found for non-religious students. And in her junior and senior years she was the first president of Students for the Advancement of Gender Equity, which provides a safe place for students to talk about gender-related issues.
Her favorite URI moments occurred as part of her involvement with the PLEASE (Peers Learning Educating and Supporting Everyone) program, an education and advocacy group on issues related to stalking, sexual assault and dating violence.
“That’s when I really found myself at URI,” Burns said. “Before, I was just taking classes and trying to earn a degree, but then I really found an amazing community of very passionate people who are just so open and ready to help. I learned so much about myself, and it helped define who I am as a person.”
Burns combined her academic and extra-curricular interests into her senior honors project, a campus-wide survey of graduate students in the STEM disciplines about sexual harassment and sexual assault. “It gave me the opportunity to tie in my passion for STEM, social justice and anthropology all in one project,” she said.
With just weeks to go before graduation, Burns recognizes that she needs a break from continuing her education, though she knows she will eventually attend graduate school. She is planning to spend the summer as a tutor for the URI Talent Development program and working at an organic farm in Pawcatuck, Conn., while deciding to which graduate schools she should apply. She hopes to earn a master’s degree studying pollination ecology, combining her love of plants and insects.
“Pollinators are so important to agriculture,” she said. “I would love to study these keystone species and help the planet at the same time. I’m a plant person, but I want to study pollination from both the plant side and the insect side and see how they work together. That’s what ecology is all about.”
URI photo by Nora Lewis