Meet graduate student Nancy Marek

Nancy Marek 2
Nancy Marek

Nancy Marek has always loved plants. She left her job as an arborist and returned to school to pursue her interest in forestry and plant development. As a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE), Nancy hopes to develop better tools and methods for controlling invasive species and monitoring overall forest understory health.

Where did you study as an undergraduate?

I studied at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA

What was your major?

My major was biology.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

Plant development had always fascinated me. So, I returned to school and earned a master of forest science from Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Then I joined the UConn Extension team and began working with Tom Worthley, an associate extension professor of forest ecology and management. Through his encouragement, and meeting supportive and dedicated professionals in NRE, I decided to continue my education and applied to department’s Ph.D. program.

Who is your advisor?

Dr. John C. Volin, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and professor in NRE.

What is your field of research?

I’m using drones as a remote sensing tool to map the distribution of invasive species with unique seasonal dynamics in the deciduous forest understory. My focus species are Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). Because of their unique phenology, both the barberry and the rose plants leaf out earlier than the native species. Therefore, a small window of opportunity exists from early April to early May for capturing imagery of both species, while the main canopy remains in leaf-off condition.

Name one aspect of your work that you like.

Flying drones is fun, of course, but I’m more interested in the story hidden within the imagery. Using object-based image analysis and machine learning to classify, and possibly identify, understory invasive species is thrilling to me! My GIS and remote sensing team members from this department are so supportive and encouraging. I look forward to getting into the lab each day to continue working on the problem.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?

After a season of capturing images, the preliminary analysis did reveal the general location of several understory invasive plant populations. That was our initial question: could a drone capture clear imagery of invasive plants in the understory flying at a height of 50 meters? It turns out it can! A small step, maybe, but that’s one step closer to solving the problem.

What do you hope to do once you get your degree?

That’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’d like to go into research and development. Creating a low-cost tool that accurately maps the distribution of invasive plant populations is one thing. The next step involves how to eradicate the populations with a biodegradable product.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

As a way to relax, I spend Sunday afternoons working on two small books: a graphic novel to support survivors of childhood sexual assault and a photographic guide to identifying the different developmental stages of native tree fruit. I just purchased my first macro lens and can’t wait to try it out this summer!

By Jason M. Sheldon