McKenzie “Kenzie” Kuhn ’15 became enamored with nature and its processes early on as she camped, hiked and played along the Colorado River.
“I was taught at a young age by my father, who has spent his career working to conserve Western Colorado water resources, that the environment I cherish so much is delicate and must be studied and protected,” she said.
As an environmental science major with a concentration in chemistry, McKenzie has spent her time at Wheaton with that mission in mind. And now she gets to delve even deeper into environmental research that she is passionate about as a newly chosen Fulbright Scholar.
She has been awarded a Fulbright to conduct research at Umea University in Sweden. There, she will work at the Abisko Research Station through a collaboration with Umea University Professor Jan Karlsson, to study greenhouse gas emissions from aquatic environments that form from thawing permafrost (frozen soil) in the summer months.
“Thawing permafrost may be releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which may further contribute to climate change,” said McKenzie, who is the captain of Wheaton’s women’s basketball team. “The amount and impact of greenhouse gases from these areas is still not entirely understood. Studying the temporary systems that form during the summer may give us a better idea of the magnitude of the possible warming. Since I will be there for 10 months, I will also have the opportunity to study winter greenhouse gas dynamics underneath the ice of frozen lakes and other similar water bodies.”
The work in Sweden builds off of the research that McKenzie did last summer in Siberia, Russia, where as a student researcher with the Polaris Project, she explored the effects of methane gas, an essential greenhouse gas that is contributing to our globe’s warming climate. The Polaris Project is an initiative to study global climate change.
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Geology Matthew Evans was instrumental in helping her get the Polaris Project position, which McKenzie believes was crucial to her winning the Fulbright award.
“Professor Evans was the one who connected me with my initial internship in Siberia, said McKenzie, who has worked as Evans’s lab assistant. “It’s amazing what can stem from just a normal conversation with a Wheaton professor. Professor Evans is so easy to approach that we were just having a normal brainstorming session to see what I should do for the summer. I knew I wanted to do fieldwork, so we were just talking about that and it made him think of the Polaris Project, which ended up being the best internship for what I wanted to get out of my summer.
“One of the most important things I have learned from my Wheaton experience is the importance of networking. The connections and relationships I have made at Wheaton were the driving force in my Fulbright process. I received so much help from the Wheaton community. I spent hours and hours with Dean Alex Trayford in the Filene Center working on applications and talking about how I can approach the next step after graduation. And my professors have been amazing throughout my four years here. The level of support that all of my professors and advisors have shown is amazing.”’
During her time at Wheaton, McKenzie has won many honors, including a Davis International Fellowship, an undergraduate award in analytical chemistry, and a President’s Award, given to students with a GPA above 3.8. (She has a 4.0)
In addition to being a skilled researcher, she is also very involved in the campus community. She is president of the Wheaton Athletic Mentors; a statistics tutor and teaching assistant.
While in Sweden, she plans to use her varied interests to engage the community by coaching basketball and mentoring young boys and girls, and tutoring students who are just beginning to learn the principles of chemistry.
The research work in Sweden will allow her to gain substantial field experience and knowledge in arctic science.
“Fieldwork is an important component of environmental research, so being able to work in the arctic over multiple seasons will give me a better idea of what a future in this field would look like. Most importantly, I will have the opportunity to learn from some of the leading experts in the field and grow my network of arctic science colleagues,” she said.
After her Fulbright experience, she plans to continue her education and research by seeking a doctorate in biogeochemistry with a focus on arctic ecosystems. “The experiences and network that I will gain from the Fulbright will no doubt play a big role in what I decide to do next.”