Commencement 2018: URI student’s enthusiasm for frogs, salamanders launches career in wildlife biology

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Laura Vigil
Laura Vigil. Photo by Randy Osga

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 16, 2018 – When Laura Vigil was a child, she often captured frogs and salamanders and pretended to care for them in a make-believe hospital before returning them unharmed to the wild. It’s a memory the University of Rhode Island senior fondly recalls as she prepares to graduate in May with a degree in wildlife and conservation biology.

Some of Vigil’s favorite memories of her URI experience also involved frogs, salamanders and other amphibians. During her four years in Kingston, she took advantage of every opportunity she could to conduct hands-on wildlife research.

As a senior she organized an independent research project about the effects of road salt on toads by collecting toad eggs, raising them in a laboratory, and observing how they reacted to changes in the salinity of their water.

“Some of the eggs we raised in high pH and salinity didn’t hatch at all, or the tadpoles had unusually large heads or were bent into a V shape,” said Vigil, who grew up in Marlborough, Mass., and has family roots in Guatemala and El Salvador. “And some would swim really funny.”

In a previous study, she surveyed parts of Rhode Island for vernal pools – temporary wetlands that dry up each summer – to determine which ones contained breeding frogs and salamanders. She also assisted with a laboratory study of bamboo sharks and smooth hound sharks to learn about the physiological limits of their diving abilities.

“I mostly took care of the sharks, and it was so much fun because they were so cool,” Vigil said. “The bamboo sharks mostly stayed at the bottom of the tank waiting for me to feed them, but the smooth hounds did a little dance at the surface, raising their head above the water and moving around whenever they saw me.”

Vigil’s time at URI wasn’t confined to wildlife, however. As a member of the Air National Guard, she spent the first weekend of every month loading and unloading airplanes at Quonset Point, and she was deployed to St. Croix to provide hurricane relief in September 2017.

“I joined the Air National Guard because of my family’s history of service,” she said. “My family is into helping people – they’re in the police, the Air Force, firefighters – and I wanted to keep that going.”

She also spent two weeks in Indonesia between semesters last year with 20 other URI students studying the culture and geology of the country that consists of 1,800 islands spanning 3,000 miles at the equator.

“My favorite part was climbing Mount Ijen,” she recalled. “We woke up at three in the morning to climb the mountain to see the sunrise at the top. It was a really hard climb but totally worth it. It’s a volcano, and in the middle of the crater there’s sulfur growing on the side that the locals collect to sell. We were struggling to climb, and the locals were in flip flops carrying hundreds of pounds of sulfur on their backs. They were amazing.”

With graduation still weeks away, Vigil is proud to report that she has already started her first professional job as an environmental field technician for the Rhode Island Conservation Districts. She is visiting agricultural properties around the state to assess their impact on wildlife and the environment.

She still has frogs and salamanders on her mind, however, and she has recently become interested in studying birds as well. Whether those creatures will play a role in her long-term career plans is uncertain.

“I’m just going to go with the flow and see what comes my way,” Vigil said. “I’m willing to go anywhere in the country and take on whatever jobs come my way.”