“We Brought Home A Lot of Awards”: LSU EnvironMentors Students Compete in National Showcase

June 21, 2023

LSU EnvironMentors students and mentors

EnvironMentors students won two Honorable Mentions in specific categories, as well as second overall.

BATON ROUGE - In early June, the LSU EnvironMentors students and mentors took a field trip – to Washington, DC. And they came home with prizes.

The science mentoring group, which pairs underrepresented students from local areas with LSU graduate and undergraduate students, traveled to the nation’s capitol with their mentors and advisers in order to participate in the National EnvironMentors Fair and Research Showcase with the Global Council for Science and the Environment. This was the first time the event had taken place since 2019.

The trip was generously sponsored by Louisiana Sea Grant office, APTIM Global, and the Global Council for Science and the Environment.  “As the Coordinator, I am so grateful to these external organizations for their support of our program, and specifically how that support allows for us to increase the applicability and accessibility of science and environmental research to underrepresented communities in Louisiana,” said Vanessa van Heerden, the Program Coordinator and a recent PhD graduate of the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences.

EnvironMentors student Kyler Connor presents his research

EnvironMentors student Kyler Connor discusses his research at the science fair.

– Photo Credit: Vanessa van Heerden

Van Heerden said she was proud of how the EnvironMentors students, all of whom hail from Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, performed at the events. “This year, our students were able to take their own  interests and complete in-depth research projects that highlighted not only the scientific intellect, but the community level importance of their research,” she said. “At the National Fair, I was able to watch our students speak with clarity, conviction, and confidence while they presented their research.”

Kyler Conner, who has participated in the program for the last two years, won second place overall for his project, titled, “Using Foraminifera

Assemblages to Understand Environmental Change in Louisiana’s Coastal Waters.” Connor was mentored by Kylie Palmer, a PhD candidate in LSU’s Department of  Geography and Anthropology.

About his experience on the trip, Connor noted, “Even though we walked for hours, it was a fun and new experience. Most importantly, we brought home a lot of awards.”

Two other EnvironMentors students also took home prizes. In the Sustainability category, Kiyana McKnight won an Honorable Mention—the equivalent of a winner in a specific category—for her project, “Worm Worries: Will Earthworms Grow with Different Fertilizers in the Soil.” McKnight was mentored by Claire Burrow, a Coastal Environmental Sciences undergraduate.

And in the Presentation Ability category, Za’Kyriaha Brock received an Honorable Mention for her project, “Air Pollution and Internal Migration in the United States.” Brock’s mentor was Jennifer Irving, a PhD candidate in LSU’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

Both Brock and McKnight are first year EnvironMentors participants. Brock said traveling with the group as a first-year student was an amazing opportunity. “Meeting the other chapters in DC and competing against them was kind of an eye opener for me by allowing me to see that my mind could take me places and people would recognize my ability to not only know something but to explain it and help them understand it,” she said.  

McKnight found the trip was memorable in more ways than one. “My experience was one of a kind, not only was it my first time in D.C. but as well as my first time being able to ride a plane. The flight was challenging emotionally at first but when I was flying, I realized how amazing it was and relaxed. I rode the metro & saw all the beautiful places such as the monuments. I was able to stay at an amazing college (Howard University) while meeting new people in the process.”

“One of my favorite parts of our approach to EM is that we focus on a bottom-up research approach, where the students drive the ideas and focus of the research projects, and are then guided by a mentor to create a project from that idea. This trip was special because we were able to take both our students and their mentors with us,” van Heerden said. “Our students were able to see how our mentors network in academic environments, and our mentors were able to experience their protégés excelling in communicating their projects at a high-level national competition.”