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Student Success

Meet KIETS Climate Leaders Scholar Rhianna Absher

Rhianna Absher, a sophomore majoring in environmental sciences in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State, is one of three students in the College of Natural Resources to be selected for the 2022 cohort of the Climate Leaders Program.

The Climate Leaders Program — administered by the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science (KIETS) — aims “to build strong partnerships among students, faculty mentors, and internship hosts while working together to develop solutions for mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts.”

During her time as a Climate Leaders Program Scholar, Absher is studying hydrology and watershed management under the guidance of Marcelo Ardón, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources. She recently partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to process surface elevation table (SET) data for wildlife refuges throughout the Southeast.

“My project was to subset this data to make it where each refuge could have their own specific report on the SET data,” Absher said. “By doing this, each refuge could have a further understanding of how their aquatic ecosystems were changing over time.” 

We recently spoke with Absher about her experience as a Climate Leaders Program Scholar and the impact she hopes to make through her research. Check out the Q&A below to learn more.

Why did you choose the Environmental Sciences program at NC State for your undergraduate studies? 

Although I have always been fascinated by the environment since growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I began to think about the study as an undergraduate degree during my high school years. What caught my interest the most in environmental science and research classes was the relation between plants and aquatic ecosystems. I chose the environmental science program at NC State specifically because of its wide variety of incredible research labs, classes, and the choosing of a focal area. Along with this, I found myself rather recently most fascinated by trees in relation to plants, which NC State is known for in their environmental science and forestry departments.  

What does it mean to you to be named a KIETS Climate Leaders Scholar? 

I am unbelievably fortunate to have been accepted into the KIETS Climate Leaders Program. Being the youngest person in the cohort, I have been able to learn from so many young professionals who are well on their way to become leaders in environmental fields. Every single one of the fellows inspire me to dream big and follow my passions. I also find myself looking up to the directors of the program, some professors themselves at NC State, for potential future career paths. Overall, the fellowship and internship portions of this program have given me so many powerful skills to use as I am going throughout my undergraduate degree and beyond.

What challenges are you hoping to address through your research? 

This topic is important to do research and analysis on because aquatic ecosystems like wetlands contain several keystone species that are crucial to the environment. With climate change and sea level rise, the study of how these waters rise and fall is crucial in order to understand how organisms in these ecosystems could be impacted by sea level rise today and in the future. By giving each refuge a detailed report of their SET data, we can further understand the trends in sea level rise and the issues and mitigation tactics that will follow. 

What motivated you to pursue this research? 

I was motivated to pursue this research beginning with my connection with my research mentor, Dr. Ardón. In his lab, I have learned so much about wetland ecosystems which has made me even more excited to research about them throughout my undergraduate degree. Knowing that Dr. Ardón works consistently with SET databases of his own, it was the perfect opportunity to intern with USFWS to learn more about the study, as well as gain needed knowledge in order to conduct my own research in his lab.

In what ways has your faculty mentor helped to guide you through this research? 

Dr. Ardón has been absolutely wonderful during my time before, during, and after this program. He is an incredible mentor to have that is not only very passionate about what he does, but he is also very willing to help students conduct research too. Dr. Ardón and I would have weekly meetings throughout the internship to discuss what I was working on and to troubleshoot any problems that came up. He will also be working with me to create a poster for the Climate Leaders Program Fall Symposium.