Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Environmental scholar

Wheaton environmental science major wins EPA scholarship

The importance of protecting the environment was instilled in Ellen Perkins '11 at a very young age. She grew up in a household in which both parents worked for environmentally focused non-profits. But it was her junior year of high school at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute that really inspired her passion for marine biology. That year, her school’s environmental club journeyed to the Caribbean coast.

"We patrolled the beach at night looking for leatherback sea turtles coming up to nest. We would collect their eggs and put them in a hatchery that would be protected from poachers. It was so neat to see these huge animals up close, and it really sparked my interest in marine research and the impact we are having on marine life," she said.

Ellen PerkinsShe will be able to indulge that interest in a big way over the next two years, thanks to a $46,500 fellowship award. Perkins has been named an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Greater Research Opportunities Undergraduate Fellow. The fellowship is open to students in environmental fields of study. It provides up to $19,250 per year for the students’ junior and senior year and $8,000 for internship support. The internship may be fulfilled at an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) facility anywhere in the United States. Just 25 undergraduate students around the country were awarded the fellowship.

Wheaton Professor of Biology Scott Shumway applauds the committee’s choice. "I was thrilled when I heard that Ellen had received this prestigious national fellowship,” he said. “She is a highly deserving candidate with a major in environmental science and mathematics—a very strong combination. The fellowship comes at a turning point in her academic career when she needs to begin gaining research experience to complement her classroom learning. I look forward to seeing her develop as a scientist over the next two years and beyond."

Late last fall, it was Shumway who suggested that Perkins apply for the fellowship. Her stellar academic performance in science and math, combined with her broad interest in environmental science, made her an ideal candidate, he said.

Perkins didn’t know what to expect when she applied. The process began late in the fall semester, just as she was preparing for finals. "It was very complicated and came at a busy time of the school year. I am so grateful for the support I received from faculty and staff at Wheaton. I couldn’t have done it without them," she said.

Perkins also appreciates the fact that she has become very interested in “the interconnectedness” of ecology, math and environmental science because of her classes at Wheaton. “Part of the reason I am a math minor is because I enjoy math and problem solving. I also see it as a key tool to understanding and solving environmental problems. I can see the applications to the environment in all of the math classes I have taken, whether it is setting up matrices using linear algebra or using statistics.”

Ellen Perkins in Costa Rica

Working in the field, in Costa Rica

Access to field work is the most significant aspect of her academic experience here, according to Perkins. In January, she completed field research in Shumway’s "Tropical Field Biology," a faculty-led study abroad course in Costa Rica. She also took several trips to Cape Cod with Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Peter Auger’s ecology class. "Sandy Neck Beach was not only gorgeous, but also an amazing place to study the environment, as well as the impact that humans have on it."

Currently Perkins is narrowing her research possibilities and then will begin looking for a corresponding EPA facility for her internship in the summer. Although she hasn’t determined the specific focus for her research, she plans to look at the human development of coastal areas and its impact on ecological habitats, which would combine her environmental and marine biology interests.

She said she is eager to give back to the academic community by presenting her research at Wheaton College events. "Having this fellowship is a great start to doing research later on in my career, so that I would be able to go back and talk to future scientists. The results of my internship will open up the environmental science field to a whole new group of students."