Liliana Ramirez and Madelyn “Maddie” Lichter know that residence hall life can be a bit like living in a zoo. So these University of Mary Washington students felt prepared for all the wildlife sounds and smells they’ve experienced over the last several months.
Both pursuing UMW’s new conservation biology major, Ramirez and Lichter are pioneer participants in a new partnership between Mary Washington and the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation. The pair has spent the last semester engaged in a new kind of “domestic study abroad experience,” conducting hands-on research on endangered animal and plant species at Front Royal’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains on 3,200 acres of forest, grasslands and pasture along the Shenandoah River.
“We hear wolves howling, and whooping cranes going at it. Last night, I heard something that sounded very zebra-like,” said Ramirez, mimicking the noise she heard while falling asleep in the residence hall. The building is one of three on campus, which also includes a dining common area and an academic center with state-of-the-art classrooms and research labs.
Ramirez, a sophomore who is also majoring in Spanish and minoring in applied mathematics, and Lichter, a junior minoring in data science, arrived in January along with two dozen other college students, mostly from across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Each student selected four faculty mentors working on research that interested them. Through an interview process, they later winnowed those down to a single focus and mentor, but were able to assist faculty with other research projects throughout the semester.
For Lichter, a Fairfax resident who recently interned for Diva Crows, a nonprofit that rehabilitates injured and orphaned songbirds, the research was an opportunity to spread her wings and study a species of small falcons that are in decline. “I explored the effect of habitat conditions on the survival rate of American kestrel nestlings.”
Hailing from Newport News, Ramirez conducted a study in ethnobotany, a field that explores the cultural connections between plants and people, such as the use of wild herbs in traditional medicine. “I had always assumed that human disturbance negatively impacted the environment,” she said, “but I learned that in more ways than I thought, humans can beneficially shape the landscape.”
UMW has six allotted spaces in the program, but the pandemic narrowed down participation, making it a more close-knit experience than usual. Students take classes together as a small cohort, engage in independent research with their mentors and learn from Smithsonian scientists, George Mason University faculty and visiting conservationists from across the globe.
There’s also time for bonding outside the classroom, such as organized hikes, trips to Skyline Caverns and helping National Zoo staff prepare for its reopening. But it’s not all roughing it. Lichter and Ramirez have also enjoyed campus amenities like HBO Max, laundry service and a “great chef” who cooks for the students.
An aspiring zoo veterinarian, Ramirez said that the program has solidified career choices for both herself and Lichter, who hopes to study urban bird ecology.
“I’ve learned so much,” Ramirez said. “This semester has been amazing.”