Graduate success

Erin Vander Stelt ’10Plant researcher
Chicago, Illinois

Caring for the environment
Erin became a new mom the same month she earned a master’s degree in plant biology and conservation from Northwestern University. Part of the staff of Chicago’s Morton Arboretum, she volunteers with Plants of Concern, a monitoring program for rare plants in the Chicago area. She also works with the Chicago Botanic Garden, organizing further genetic research of Isoëtes butleri, the endangered plant she studied in graduate school.

Have you always known you wanted to be a scientist?

Actually, I started out as a music major in college, but the summer after my freshman year I took Introduction to Environmental Sciences to fulfill a general education requirement. I’d always had this love of science that I’d never really acknowledged, and that summer everything came together at the same time: my own reading about environmental problems, conversations with friends and family and members of my church about the topic, and the class. I realized I really loved environmental science and it had always been a passion of mine, so I switched majors.

Describe your NWC biology professors.

They knew me and cared about me. They had a huge knowledge base to draw from, so I was learning from experts in the field. Because they were working on their own research, I felt like I was learning from people who were invested and up-to-date in their field. They were also committed to helping us understand how science and religion could work together and that they should work together—that science and religion should be a partnership.

Did you have an opportunity to do research as an undergraduate student at Northwestern College?

I was a research intern with Dr. Tracy for three summers. We were studying the impact of invasive species, so I helped him collect and count insects and collect and process plant data. That was a huge help in learning what kind of data is important for research. Dr. Tracy also encouraged me to apply for a Mellon Foundation grant to do interdisciplinary research that combined my ecological sciences major with my religion minor. I surveyed people to learn what kind of personal and religious traits informed and affected their perspective of environmental issues—and then presented my findings at the Association for Environmental Sciences and Studies Conference.

What kind of impact did those experiences have on your master’s degree studies?

Something I’m really proud of Northwestern College for is that I was extremely well prepared for graduate school. There was one other student in my cohort who had been to a liberal arts school, and he and I were the two people they would ask to lead study sessions for our fellow students. The broad base of knowledge I’d received and the skills I’d learned in my general education classes really helped me—like the ability to write, because I’d taken writing classes, and the ability to read papers outside my discipline because I’d taken history and philosophy classes.

So it’s safe to say you’d recommend NWC to others?

I would. I loved Northwestern College. I loved my friends, I loved chapel, I loved everything—my general education classes, the classes for my major. If anyone is looking for a place where they can develop spiritually and academically and learn techniques and work that is going to help them in the real world, Northwestern is a great choice.

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