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The right environment for research

Undergraduate research inspires personal discoveries

Hometown: Queens, N.Y. 
Major: Environmental Science
Minor: Studio Fine Arts

You could say Sonia Sandoval wears her heart on her sleeve, or, more to the point, her passion on her arm. The tattoo that’s inked just above her wrist depicts a wolf, an endangered species in many parts of the U.S.

“I’m an advocate for populations that are unable to mitigate human effects on wildlife,” says Sonia. “I’m interested in maintaining biodiversity and protecting habitats, so that these species can take care of themselves.”

A native of Colombia, South America, whose family came to the U.S. when she was 4, Sonia feels most at home while engaging in the world of research.

You’ll find her in Union’s labs and classrooms, as well as off-campus in fields and forests, working closely with her classmates and professors on topics involving black locusts, invertivore birds and Sphagnum moss.

Following her sophomore year, Sonia took part in Union’s summer research program. As a paid intern, she began studying the bioaccumulation of mercury in invertivore bird species of the nearby Albany Pine Bush Preserve, one of the world’s largest inland pine barrens.

She also spent the summer after her junior year in the Pine Bush, this time measuring the ecological effects of black locust invasion by isotopically identifying nitrogen inputs.

“The Pine Bush soil is generally nutrient poor, and these trees are altering the ecosystem by inputting nitrogen where there hasn’t been much before,” she explains.

In between, on a term in Australia, she took courses at the University of Queensland and also studied diverse environments, including the rainforest in Lamington National Park, Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef and North Stradbroke, the world’s second largest sand island, where she looked at the effects of fire on native habitats.  

On campus, Sonia has worked with other students in measuring how Sphagnum moss grows on 3D structures.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach to her field, she uses the 3D printer in the College’s Collaborative Design Studio to model moss canopy ecosystems. The studio is an academic makerspace, aimed at fostering and accelerating novel interdisciplinary research.

Along with courses such as environmental ethics, her hands-on research has helped Sonia clarify her career ambitions. She plans to go to graduate school in Australia for conservation biology.

“Conservation biologists assess population characteristics of endangered species and try to develop a plan to protect them,” she notes. ““My Union education has enabled me to see the range of options available for helping the environment, and to communicate effectively, both verbally and through images and other media.” 

At Union,” Sonia says, “you can explore and take initiative, and also have the guidance of professors who really care about you and your work. My Union education – particularly the research experience – helped me figure out what I want to do with my life.” 

What are you driven to discover?:

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