When Fiona McConnell first came to Penn State, she thought that she’d follow other family members into the healthcare space and become a dentist. She didn’t envision spending the next three years focusing on sustainability, but her interests, early research experience, and engaged faculty advisers all helped shape that path.
McConnell, a third-year student from Altoona, Pennsylvania, chose Penn State because she knew she wanted research experience early in her academic career, and she jumped right in. During her first year studying genetic and developmental biology, McConnell received funding from Penn State’s Student Engagement Network to create her own research project examining the anxiety of children at a local dental clinic.
“I quickly realized that the dental profession wasn’t for me,” she said. “I’m grateful for this early experience because it showed me that I wasn’t interested in dentistry and also connected me with a great mentor—Penn State Career Services counselor Matthew Ishler—who supported me in pursuing other types of experiences.”
McConnell shared that an early lesson for her was the importance of reaching out to faculty and staff across campus to learn about resources, get help and network. One of her first experiences working with a faculty member was with Russ Deforest, assistant teaching professor of mathematics, in her first math class, where she turned a challenge into an opportunity.
“I was struggling, and I worked up the nerve to speak with my professor during office hours. He was very understanding and willing to help. Throughout the semester, I was constantly in contact with him, and I went from thinking I might fail the course to getting an A,” McConnell said. “Fast-forward two years, and I’ve kept in touch with my professor. He has written me several letters of recommendation and asked me to be a teaching assistant for his sustainability math course this semester.”
Since then, McConnell has also had experiences in labs doing human subject research on children’s eating behaviors, performing RNA extractions on corals, and studying bacteria that may be capable of degrading the toxic compound known as PFAS that is used by companies around the world for waterproofing.
“This really helped me to narrow down my interests and make connections to new opportunities,” McConnell said. “These experiences helped open my mind and showed me that a lot more career paths were available than I thought.”
The variety of these research opportunities also helped her to connect her personal interests and experiences with her education.
“My family is very active, and I had the opportunity to travel starting at a young age,” McConnell said. “During one of our trips we went scuba diving, and it exposed me first-hand to the effects of climate change. It sparked my interest in sustainability.”
That passion helped launch McConnell into leadership roles. With the encouragement and support of Associate Dean for Undergraduate Students Chris Palma, she and a handful of other peers became founding members of the Eberly College of Science Student Council – undergraduate students’ primary contact with the college’s Dean’s office – after they worked to re-start the group in December 2021, following a pandemic-related pause. McConnell is the council’s first Sustainability Chair.
“When we re-launched the council, we had no members, so we started recruiting people and trying to get them to come to events,” she said. “Our goal was to emphasize a sense of community among students after spending part of our academic careers in remote-learning modes.”
As a recruitment tool, McConnell organized a sustainable clothing shopping event where she had students donate clothes they were no longer wearing and then resold them as a student council fundraiser. She ended up with about 100 donations and raised enough money to fund more events for the council.
“One year later, we have more than 80 members and have added two new executive positions, including a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion chair,” she said. “We’re holding more events this year – including small sustainability activities like making sustainable laundry detergent and another clothing drive and resale in the spring.”
For McConnell, the experience with the Eberly Student Council has been rewarding, and the more she networks, the more involved in the college’s core sustainability efforts she has become. In addition to being a teaching assistant for the Math for Sustainability course, McConnell is also the undergraduate chair for the college’s Sustainability Council, which is focusing on projects like a collegewide greenhouse gas inventory and potential carbon offset forest plan.
Looking ahead, she’s planning to continue her learning through travel.
“This fall I’m taking a scientific diving class as a career skill I’d like to pursue after I graduate. I’m also planning to study abroad in Australia this coming spring and was able to connect with researchers there to continue working on similar PFAS toxic compound studies that I performed last summer,” McConnell said. “I am so excited to be able to use my enhanced scuba diving experience to see the Great Barrier Reef!”