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Where are they now? Kristina Hefferle ’23

February 26, 2024 Kristina Hefferle

Kristina Hefferle 

Majors: Biology and Anthropology, Class of 2023
Hometown: Denville, New Jersey
IE Experiences:
Highlands Field Site, Pavel Molchanov Scholar, EcoStudio Intern, Research Presentation  

Why did you choose this specific experience?  

I chose to attend the Highlands Field Site to apply what I had learned in the classroom to tangible research skills and learn more about the environment of North Carolina. Getting field work experience is really invaluable, and working with professionals in the field is so important as an undergraduate. From there, I chose to pursue the Pavel Molchanov Scholars Program, as well as an internship through Ecostudio, to expand on these skills and continue to get experience in field work and research in many different areas, including nonprofits and education centers. Attending and presenting at conferences, an opportunity provided by the Institute for the Environment, was a way for me to showcase what I had learned and to meet other people who share my passions. 

What did you do/learn during your experience?  

At the Highlands Field Site, I researched Blue Ridge two-lined salamanders with a partner, which I was able to present at the Association of Southeastern Biologists annual meeting, as well as worked with my cohort to research microplastic dynamics in freshwater streams. I also enrolled in coursework exploring human-environment interactions in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and how to measure, understand, and communicate human impacts. Through the Pavel Molchanov Scholars Program, I interned with Greensboro Science Center in their research and conservation department. I led the analysis on bat activity in a multi-year, multi-site mitigation and restoration project to understand the importance of habitat type and land use on bat activity. Through UNC IE’s Ecostudio program, I worked with City Bird as the window collisions monitoring intern. I helped coordinate a citizen science effort to quantify bird-window collisions at target buildings at UNC’s campus, as well as managed and analyzed data to contribute to a manuscript discussing the project’s findings 

Did you receive funding to participate in your program/opportunity? If so, how did this impact your experience and career journey?

I received funding to present at the Association of Southeastern Biologists annual meeting, as well as funding to support me while I interned with Greensboro Science Center through the Pavel Molchanov Scholars Program. I am so grateful to receive funding for these experiences; I was able to attend a professional conference and move to Greensboro, North Carolina for the summer so that I could be fully invested in field work and research. Without funding, I would not have been able to participate in either of these experiences and would not have the research experience and connections that I have today. 

Describe how this experience impacted you as a student. What personal and professional skills did you gain? How have or how will you apply what you are learning/have learned to your future?  

I have gained both many technical skills and personal skills through all of my experiences. I have learned how to use different softwares, such as ArcGIS and RStudio to analyze data, as well as how to collect and manage field data. I’ve conducted wildlife surveys across many taxa, as well as utilized remote sensing tools such as acoustic monitors. I also learned how to trap, ID, and tag animals, assess water quality, collect tissue samples, run a polymerase chain reaction, and gel electrophoresis. I also gained experience in writing scientific reports, as well as communicating scientific results to audiences ranging from high school students and community members to other researchers. I also have been able to meet and work with people working in different sectors and organizations, including the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, professors and graduate students from other universities, nonprofit organizations, and education centers. These skills and experiences were important as I started to look for field work and research positions and will continue to be important if I later pursue graduate school. Not only do these skills prepare me for further research and higher education, but they have allowed me to explore many fields and determine what areas of research I am truly interested in, and what careers and positions I would look for after I graduate. I have also made lasting friendships and continue to meet people who share my passions, for which I am incredibly grateful. 

What is your favorite memory from your experience?  

One of my favorite memories is a field trip to Roan Mountain as a student at the Highlands Field Site. After a frozen hike over the Balds of the mountain, my peers and I sat around a campfire playing games and sharing snacks with our professors and mentors. It was such a heartwarming trip that really emphasized how many friendships and experiences we had in just one short semester and was a break from our research projects that were being presented soon. These people had become so important in my life in such a short period of time, and looking back at this moment captures just how close we had become and how much we had changed during this program. 

How have your UNC IE experiences impacted you?  

I am currently an amphibian ecology research technician at the University of Georgia in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. This position includes intensive field work, genetic sampling, captive rearing of animals, and other duties to help contribute to various research projects. I regularly identify and handle wildlife, utilize field equipment, and manage data. 

IE provided me with opportunities to have a hands-on education and develop skills that directly applied to my position. For instance, my time at the Highlands Field Site and with my internship through the Molchanov Scholars program have provided me with ample opportunities to be trained by professionals to properly handle and identify wildlife, as well as collect tissue samples from target species. That just isn’t an education you can get in a typical classroom. IE also helped me develop an understanding of different management practices and research, which gave me insight into not only how the field of wildlife works but also to what kinds of jobs I’d be interested in after I graduated. Most importantly, IE allowed me to develop the confidence that I was capable of wildlife positions. There aren’t a lot of chances to get into wildlife outside of the IE program, and I wouldn’t have known that this is what I loved doing if it weren’t for these opportunities.