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Into the Wild: Professor Allyson Jackson

Allyson Jackson with Kayla Vanhouten '19
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Allyson Jackson discovered her passion for studying wildlife in the field during a General Ecology class as an undergraduate.

She now teaches the same class at Purchase, turning on a new generation of students by taking them out of the classroom and into the wild.

By providing encounters that closely tack to the real work of scientists, the experiential learning aspect of her teaching helps students discover early whether field work is right for them. “Figuring that out in college is huge,” she says. “For some it helps translate into putting more care into their classwork.” 

Painting by Professor Allyson Jackson An ecotoxicologist, Jackson’s research focuses mainly on food webs and contaminants, in particular on mercury exposure in songbirds. “I’ve always been interested in the questions of human impacts on the environment,” she explains.

During the summer of 2018, following her first year as a full-time professor, Jackson took seven Purchase students to Acadia National Park in Maine to study bugs, a source of food and contaminants for songbirds. The park suffers from relatively high mercury levels—the result of coal-fired power plants in the Ohio River Valley, whose mercury output travels on the wind currents.

Unlike planned classroom curriculum, field work comes with many unknowns and problems. “They’re used to me as a professor, but in the field, I don’t always know what we’re doing. We have to problem-solve on the spot,” she says. “It’s good for them to see that I don’t know all the answers. That’s what I love about fieldwork.”

The students were her field technicians, a role she’s not quite sure they fully appreciated—yet. “They were real technicians doing the work I would have hired someone to do,” she says. “They don’t necessarily get how cool that is, but I think they’ll realize it down the line.”

For two of those students, the experience helped score internships this summer with the U.S. Geological Survey. Veronica Winter ’19 studied sea turtles in Florida and Alex Youre-Moses ’19 worked in Glacier National Park in Montana on invasive lake trout and native bull trout populations. Jackson suspects that’s when they realized the breadth of skills they picked up in Maine.

Building the Case One Study at a Time

Jackson hopes her research becomes a building block in the broader case for environmental protection. Right before she started her PhD, the United States passed mercury and air quality standards that capped emissions from coal-fired power plants. But the current administration rolled them back. “It’s frustrating; it would be an amazing problem if I didn’t have to study mercury anymore.”

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Jackson is a strong proponent of the current shift across disciplines that scientists have a duty to communicate better. As part of the grant she received for the Acadia research project, she attended a science communication retreat where she learned the importance of better explaining research results. This also helps alter the public perception that scientists are separate from everyone else. “We have a breakdown where people believe that climate change isn’t real because they think scientists aren’t normal people who make good decisions, try to figure things out, and feel strongly about it.” 

It’s an ongoing battle, but one worth fighting. “Everything has a global reach that we barely understand.”

Garden Wide Open

The Green Team, a student eco-action club focused on making Purchase more sustainable, approached Professor Jackson about revamping the neglected vegetable garden behind the Dance Building. A team of students, faculty, and staff soon formed. During the 2018–19 academic year, they visited native plant gardens, drafted plans, brainstormed curricular ties, and got their hands dirty planting 20 beds featuring 10 species of native flowering plants.

Butterfly in the Purchase garden The native flower garden provides habitat and food for pollinators and other native species. As a living learning lab, the garden will serve as the basis for research projects and provide educational opportunities for engagement across disciplines. It ties in with the campus’ overall sustainability efforts by reducing the amount of mowed lawn space while increasing native habitat. 

The garden sets a good example of natural resources stewardship; students will be able to conduct community service right here on campus. It’s also a place to spend time in nature, work, and congregate. After much deliberation about whether to fence in the garden, the group decided against it. The students felt strongly about keeping the garden open as a green space accessible to all, with picnic tables and ADA-compliant paved walkways.

Jackson credits environmental studies majors Alivia Zimmerman ’19 and Jon Matkowski ’20, whose perseverance was critical to the process of bringing the garden to fruition.

Native flower garden Painted bricks from the Purchase garden

—Kristi McKee