Narragansett resident to graduate from URI as top environmental science student

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KINGSTON, R.I. – May 11, 2009 – Jessie Dyer arrived at the University of Rhode Island as a freshman with an intense interest in a subject that few students ever learn much about – soil. It’s a topic that led her to an internship in Hawaii, a research project in Costa Rica, and a gathering of environmental scholars in Arizona.

As she prepares to graduate on May 17, she also knows that it was largely due to her understanding of soil science that she will be recognized with the President’s Award for Student Excellence in Environmental Science.

A resident of Narragansett, Dyer began to learn about soil science during her participation in a high school Envirothon.

“There are all sorts of morphological parameters to soil, like texture, structure, and color, which tells you everything you need to know,” she said. “For instance, the color of soil tells you about its mineralogy, its structure, its wetness class, and the amount of organic matter it contains. If it’s high in clay, you can’t put a house on it because clay absorbs water.”

As part of the University’s soil judging team, she competed against soil science students from other universities and helped URI place second at the regional competition and seventh at the nationals in 2009. In a soil judging competition, students climb into a pit six-feet deep to collect soil samples for characterization and analysis.

“It can be a battle in the pit,” she said with a grin, “because you only have five minutes to get your samples and there are three or four other people in there with you, sometimes fighting over little tiny bits of soil, and everybody has a soil knife to pluck out the soil. So it can be dangerous, in a fun way.”

In 2008, Dyer was awarded a Udall Scholarship, the most prestigious national scholarship for environmental science, and was invited with other winners to a conference in Arizona that she described as “a pretty inspirational experience.”

Last summer she worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in Kauai, Hawaii, as a conservation planner, conducting wildlife habitat restoration projects and working with farmers.

As a sophomore she expanded her scientific horizons to mammalogy by participating in a three-week research project in Costa Rica assessing the diversity of mammals in shade-grown coffee plantations compared to those found in traditional coffee plantations.

“We learned about working as a team, living in challenging conditions, and how to construct an experiment,” Dyer explained. “In the end, though, I left the wildlife scene and returned to soils. I didn’t like the biting and urination and bleeding that goes along with mammal research.”

With graduation fast approaching, Dyer is finishing up her senior honors project examining how pathogens in water can accumulate in sub-aqueous soils and on eelgrass that lives on the soil.

As she considers options for her future – graduate school or a job – and looks back at her college career, Dyer said that it was the relationships she developed with faculty and students that will be the most memorable part of her education.

“The professors in my department are amazing,” she said with enthusiasm. “They’re so approachable, and I have a personal relationship with all of them. The whole program has a really good learning community, which got the students really close and made for a fun learning experience. It couldn’t have been better.”