As a student-researcher, Community Engagement Fellow and double major in environmental science and data analytics who’s also pursuing a food-studies certificate, Michelle Cao ’25 explores connections between sustainability, social justice and big data. Through a National Science Foundation program for undergraduate researchers, she assessed genetic diversity in mango plants. She will present her research at the Tri Crop Societies Annual Meeting in St. Louis this fall. Cao also uses spatial-analysis techniques to research pesticide use in Pennsylvania forests. Cao works as a watershed coordinator for Dickinson’s ALLARM organization and works as an intern for the College Farm’s storefront, Farm Works. And, as a second-generation Asian American, she enjoys sharing her culture—and learning about others’ food cultures—by cooking fusion meals with friends.
Clubs and organizations:
Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (watershed coordinator), Dickinson College Farm Works (intern), Department of Environmental Studies (research assistant), Environmental Science Majors Committee and Asian & Asian American Collective.
Presidential Scholarship and Justin Gold Family Foundation Annual Scholarship for Environmental Studies or Environmental Science Students.
Best thing about my Dickinson experience so far:
Finding safe spaces and community in every corner of campus. I am beyond grateful to cross paths and engage in thoughtful conversations with so many compassionate individuals who inspire me to think, learn and grow in ways I never saw for myself.
Best thing about my majors:
Majoring in data analytics and environmental science is a good challenge for my mind, body and soul. The environmental sciences major provides me with a myriad of experience to grow a deeper love for the environment and awareness toward environmental justice issues. The data analytics major allows me to build my computational abilities and confidence as a problem solver. Together, I get to see and experience the connections between sustainability, social justice and big data and envision how I can make my mark.
Associate Professor of Biology Carol Loeffler, for always meeting me where I am and for sharing a mutual love for plants and the natural world. I took BIOL 224 and BIOL 322 last year and appreciated learning about flora during our adventures in central Pennsylvania and our trip to the Great Smokey Mountains. She has also provided me with unwavering support and encouragement through my summer internship search and beyond.
Cooking brings me so much peace and happiness! I love stirring up fusion dishes with my roommates and connecting over good food. I enjoy learning about their cultures and getting to rekindle my identity as a second-generation Asian-American.
About my internships:
I’ve interned for the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM), a community-science nonprofit, since my first year as part of the Community Engagement Fellows program. Through this work, I had the chance to experience all aspects of the organization, from volunteer training to outreach and environmental justice research, testing protocols and refining the annual data interpretation process. I enjoy drawing connections between my coursework and getting to apply the skills I gain between my classes and at ALLARM interchangeably.
In the spring and summer of 2022, I interned at the New York Academy of Sciences as a science mentor. I mentored and taught elementary school students about STEM education, innovation and sustainability. I had so much fun diving into lesson planning and learning to tailor and convey scientific concepts to a younger audience. It was so refreshing and inspiring to watch them grow and to see their excitement and love for science.
This semester, as an intern at the College Farm’s Farm Works enterprise, I get to experience the everyday adventures of running and sustaining a food business. I am grateful for the variability of the work, from chopping veggies to serving soup to my peers to collecting consumer insights. It is so rewarding at the end of each shift to see the direct impact of my work.
To work in the biotech and R&D sector and, eventually, to pursue graduate study relating to agricultural sciences and analytics.
About my research:
This past summer, through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Missouri Botanical Garden, I assessed the genetic diversity of global mango collection using various computational methods on R. It was fascinating to access one of the world’s largest genetic mango datasets and interrogate the data. I also appreciated getting the chance to build my background in genetics and molecular biology, draw connections from my coursework, and see the broader applications of analytics in the plant sciences and natural world. I look forward to returning to St. Louis this fall to present my research at the Tri Crop Societies Annual Meeting.
This fall I am pursuing an independent study with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Maggie Douglas. We are examining pesticide usage in Pennsylvania forests through a spatial lens. This research is an integral part in piecing together the larger puzzle of pesticide usage across all land covers and has broader applications in pest control and management, pollinator conservation, etc. I am excited to take on the opportunity to explore my interests in agroecology and agricultural systems and continue to build and refine my analytical and GIS toolboxes.
Most important thing I’ve learned so far:
You are your biggest advocate and cheerleader. Be proud of all that you have accomplished. Don’t be afraid to dive into new experiences, and do what excites you, because if not now, then when?
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Published December 13, 2023