Marist

Alec, Marissa, and Julia

Marist
Alec, Marissa, and Julia

On April 2, 2016, three Marist science students convened in Springfield, Massachusetts, for The 70th Annual Eastern Colleges Science Conference at Western New England University. Surrounded by their four additional Marist student counterparts, Marissa Porter, Julia Czarnecki, and Alec Lee found themselves in the midst of over 300 competing, undergraduate science students from colleges throughout the Northeastern United States. Marissa and Julia, both current senior Environmental Science majors, presented a manuscript on their study of the effects of pharmaceuticals on crayfish behavior and pathology. Alec, a junior Environmental Science major, presented a similar study using plants, rather than crayfish, as his model.

“That was my first conference,” Alec says. “It was exciting to see our research project as worthwhile when presenting it.” Marissa and Julia were both veterans to the conference. Having collaborated with Julia in an analysis of water management in New York State, Marissa had already presented a number of her projects at various conferences throughout the country, including the Vassar Environmental Consortium last fall, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. last spring. This past summer, she received the Hudson River Foundation Tibor T. Polgar Fellowship, allowing her to work independently in the Hudson Valley to study eel migration barriers within the Hudson River Watershed.

Julia presented her research in similar conferences, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Marist CURSCA, and the Environmental Consortium annual conference. During her sophomore year, she was awarded the Open Space Institute McHenry Award, which included a grant to conduct research and public outreach regarding education about the water management system in the Hudson Valley.

“Environmental Science is not just a major for us.”

Yet for Alec, Marissa, and Julia alike, these conferences were not merely an additional bullet on their resumes. They were reflections of their majors—the way in which they saw the world and conducted their lives on a daily basis. “Environmental Science is not just a major for us,” Julia says. “It is life. It is everything you are interested in, your loves, and everything that you are passionate about.”

Being from the small, open-spaced farm town of West Newbury, Massachusetts, Marissa came to this realization at an early age. She was very much influenced by her surroundings, and like many others in her town, fostered a deep admiration for the environment. Leaving home and venturing into the suffocating city-like crevices of the world, Marissa realized a deep sense of appreciation for her hometown, and, as she calls it, “the space to roam.”

As a member of Marist’s Division 1 Track and Cross Country program, Marissa’s passion for running also contributed to her love of nature. “I would always run in the woods, and that made me connected to nature and the world,” she says. “I would run the same places all the time, and if something changed, like an area being deforested, I would notice and wonder how that was allowed to happen.”

“Everybody is affected by the environment, and it’s something that everybody should think about, but not everybody cares about, and I understand that.”

Like Marissa, Julia manifested a similar connection to nature at a young age. But her environmental appreciation was not as prominent within her suburban hometown of Wayne, New Jersey.

“It was not the norm where I grew up. You can’t really walk anywhere, there’s not really a lot of nature around—just a lot of strip malls and highways.” But as she ventured to lands outside of Wayne, Julia was intrigued by the open space that surrounded her. While her brother, a New-York-City-based financial manager, gravitated toward the architectural and commercial areas on Czarnecki family vacations, Julia opted toward the hikes, the kayaking and the nature. She spent much time convincing her chemist father to take environmental issues into consideration when creating products for his work.    

Alec can harmonize in this passion, though he was not always aware of it. Growing up in Albany, New York and struggling with social anxiety and stress, he viewed school as a job very much separate from passion. It was not until his senior year of high school when he suffered from a severe spine injury which would require further surgery in his later life, that he began to realize his inspiration.

“I always used to see school as just getting good grades. But after my injury, I decided to take in every moment. Now, I try to enjoy my time. I take the time to make sure what I am doing is worth doing.”

“You have an obligation to the environment to help preserve it and help protect it.”

For Alec, his love of science and appreciation for the environment is worth doing. He spends many hours admiring the works of nature that many others have little interest in, such as staring at trees for hours on end. “I am a bit of a weirdo,” he jokes. “I think differently than people, and I have this 6th sense with nature that’s sort of like a spiritual connection.”

This ‘6th’ sense, a characteristic which Marissa and Julia share as well, bore an interesting path for the three scientists upon arriving at Marist. The three, among other Environmental Science majors, considered themselves unique in their passions, on the urban, New York-based campus.

“Everybody is affected by the environment, and it’s something that everybody should think about, but not everybody cares about, and I understand that,” Julia says.

But throughout their years at Marist, Julia, Marissa, and Alec maximized their ‘spiritual connection’ to carve their path in the Hudson Valley. Julia recounts cruising down the Hudson River every morning at sunrise with the Marist Crew team as some of her favorite memories. Marissa is currently working on publishing her findings for the eel research project she conducted this past summer. Alec, who later won an award at American Chemical Society conference during the Spring of 2016, will be traveling to Orlando this fall for the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Conference. He has also begun work on his Honors Thesis project with senior Alexa Kovlakas which, if approved, will yield a garden to Marist for environmental study, nutrition, and community purposes.

“I always used to see school as just getting good grades. But after my injury, I decided to take in every moment. Now, I try to enjoy my time. I take the time to make sure what I am doing is worth doing.”

 

The three each have ambitions of obtaining their PhDs and continuing their studies in different aspects of environmental science post-graduation. “I think being an environmental science major, you can really make an impact on the world. There is always meaning to what you are doing, and you have the potential to benefit the environment and humans,” Marissa reflects.

As Marissa, Julia, and Alec presented their research at the ECSC conference on that April 2nd of 2016, they did not yet know that they would each be taking home an individual award for their manuscripts. Julia, for Environmental Science; Alec, for Biology; and Marissa, for Ecology. But to them, this was just another milestone in the life which they had already built around their shared passion—one that is nursed by only a select few.

“If you have that 6th sense,” Marissa says, “you have an obligation to the environment to help preserve it and help protect it.”