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Genevieve Myers: Unexpected Opportunities in the Research Field

Before I even decided to attend NC State, I attended an information session for admitted students about research and internships for undergraduate students in the College of Natural Resources. I expected to learn about research opportunities, but I did not expect to make a connection that would lead to a job when I got to campus. I entered a breakout room where a professor, Dr. Lincoln Larson, explained his ongoing research. Dr. Larson is an associate professor in the Parks, Recreation, Tourism, and Management Department at NC State. The ongoing research he explained happened to involve a social justice issue I am passionate about: gentrification. I told him I was intrigued by his study and had written two research papers about gentrification for high school classes. He invited me to email him my papers. When I did, he responded that he was impressed with my work and would like to meet with me when I arrived on campus. I could not believe how lucky I was that my interests aligned so well with the one professor in the breakout room. That interaction sealed the deal on choosing to attend NC State.

I met Dr. Larson in person during my second week at NC State. He said he typically did not hire freshmen as research assistants; however, I had experience conducting research in high school, and my passion for the topic was so evident that he hired me on the spot. I started working as his research assistant for a project about environmental justice in urban tree planting. This is important because if organizations do not take an environmental justice approach when planting trees in historically marginalized urban communities, the trees can raise property values and force renters who cannot afford increased rates out of their communities. This process is known as “green gentrification.” I was initially hired for one semester to code and analyze themes in urban tree planting survey data from a nonprofit organization, Green Heart Louisville. Dr. Larson and I met regularly to brainstorm solutions when problems, such as survey inconsistencies, arose.

After the first semester, he extended my employment through May 2023 to continue work on a larger equitable urban greening research project funded by the US Forest Service. I began working with Dr. Lauren Mullenbach, another member of the research team who planned the integrative literature review and found 60 relevant research papers. I read the papers and created a codebook to analyze theories, strategies, outcomes, and challenges of past urban tree planting initiatives. For this assignment, I read substantially more research papers than I ever had to for a class, and I probably would have hated it if they were not about topics I was interested in. While reading so many academic articles was draining at times, I ended up enjoying learning so much about the topic of urban tree planting. Since I read all of the papers we were analyzing, Dr. Larson and Dr. Mullenbach asked me to draft the introduction to a literature review, which will ultimately inform development of a Practitioner’s Guide that integrates environmental justice to enable more successful future tree planting initiatives. This opportunity led to Dr. Larson asking me to continue helping write the rest of the literature review and get credited as one of the lead authors when the paper is published. That assignment validated my academic writing skills and provided an amazing opportunity, especially for a freshman.

Our literature review on equitable tree planting practices is currently under peer review, and we hope that it will be published soon. In the meantime, I am working on another project under Dr. Larson’s supervision. This research project is led by one of Dr. Larson’s master students, Julianna Duran, and focuses on studying all of the projects from Thriving Earth Exchange, a hub for global community science projects. We are coding projects based on several variables to determine whether the partner organizations are effectively achieving social justice outcomes. I have really enjoyed working with Julianna and learning about the environmental projects across the country supported by Thriving Earth Exchange. While being a research assistant does not provide the autonomy that being the lead researcher provides, I love being able to help with multiple different projects. I enjoy learning about new topics and research methods and practicing various skills, such as coding and writing.

Homepage of Thriving Earth Exchange Website

While I am immensely grateful for my research experience in the Larson Lab, I am currently looking for internships in other fields. I am earning a minor in Nonprofit Studies, so I hope to get a job at a nonprofit organization related to environmental justice. Dr. Larson was a very encouraging boss — really the best first boss I could ask for. Having him compliment my work taught me that I respond best to positive reinforcement, and I work best in a fun and supportive environment, like the one in the Larson Lab. I also loved working with people who were so passionate about certain environmental issues. I hope to be surrounded by the same sort of collaborative and inspiring environment at whatever nonprofit organization I work for in the future.