Meet graduate student Ava Smith

Ava Smith stands next to an outdoor sign for the Bombay Hook Natinal Wildlife Refuge.
Ava Smith

Ava Smith entered UConn in the Department of Animal Science but eventually found her place within the Department of Natural Resources, as her early interest in animals, science and conservation, particularly forest management, lent itself toward that focus. She enjoys engaging with both landowners and conservation professionals and hopes to find a position that melds social science with conservation planning. Here’s what she had to say about her experience at UConn.

Where did you study as an undergraduate? What was your major?

I actually was an undergrad at UConn and studied natural resources with a concentration of fisheries and wildlife conservation.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

After graduating in 2016, I worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in conservation planning and grant administration. While I learned a lot during my time with the service, I realized that to really advance in my career I needed additional skills and knowledge that could only be acquired by returning to school.

Due to the generalist nature of the positions I held, it took me some time to figure out my strengths and what specific focus I wanted to pursue. Once I made that decision, the right pieces fell into place and within a few months I was a UConn Husky once again.

Who is your advisor? What is your field of research?

Dr. Chadwick Rittenhouse is my advisor, and my current field of research is private landowner engagement in planning. I consider my project to be a blend of social science and conservation planning, both of which play to my recent work experience and my interests.

Name one aspect of your work that you like.

I really appreciate that I can talk with different individuals in the conservation community and learn about their efforts to promote conservation and engage the public in new ways. The conversations I have not only inform my research, but also spark ideas of how I want to improve outreach and engagement efforts once I graduate.

In your opinion, what is your greatest accomplishment so far?

I would say finishing my first semester of graduate school would be my greatest accomplishment. Even under normal conditions, juggling research and coursework can be stressful, but throw in a pandemic and my focus and time management was tested more than I anticipated!

When do you expect to get your degree? What then?

I expect to graduate in December of 2021, and as for what is next, I’m giving myself a little more time to figure that out. With support for human dimensions and social science research expanding every year in conservation, I hope to be able to fill a gap in an organization that seeks to engage and understand the public better, whether that means returning to federal service or working with a state agency or NGO.

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

Since Connecticut instituted its stay-at-home order, I’ve become more conscious of my consumerism. Something about being at home all the time and seeing exactly what products come in and out of my surroundings, has motivated me to want to examine ingredients, packaging and construction of what I own and purchase. It’s become a side hobby of mine to research ethical and eco-conscious brands, learn how to responsibly recycle odd items and contribute less waste to landfills.

Has the COVID pandemic affected your studies, grants, or graduation date?

As of right now, the pandemic has not affected my studies, and I am extremely grateful for that. Given the fact that my project doesn’t have a field season, and many of the contacts I’ve made so far are teleworking, I’m fortunate to be able to continue my research efforts from the comfort of home. I know that some of my peers cannot say the same, and I feel for them deeply during this time.

By Kim Colavito Markesich