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Flying high and digging deep

A Penn student discovers that harmony can happen when we let nature do its job

“Birds are excellent indicators of how your ecosystem is doing,” shares Heather Kostick (Master of Environmental Studies, December ’16—expected), “If they can’t survive, we’re in bad shape.” Heather is an enthusiastic advocate for birds who found her calling while taking an Ornithology class at Juniata College as an undergraduate.

“We have a menagerie at home. My family has a dog, a cat, eight birds, a rabbit, a tortoise, a horse and we might get goats and chickens,” Heather laughs. Though she’s had a lifelong relationship with environmentalism, it wasn’t until college that conservation became her focus.

After graduating, Heather took two years to work in the field before landing at Penn. “Go out there and figure out what you like,” she encourages. Heather worked in Indiana and New Jersey in bird care positions. She also worked on the Meadow Restoration Project at Longwood Gardens where she helped plant more than 60,000 plugs.

The next step for Heather was clear, “I knew I wanted to get a PhD and teach at the college or university level. Graduate school was a must and Penn was absolutely the right choice.” Heather was also offered the position of Administrative Coordinator for the Master of Environmental Studies and Master of Science in Applied Geosciences programs at the same time she started her degree.

Working for the department means that Heather gets to know the students and faculty quite well. “I am amazed by what my peers are doing. It’s a fantastic community. There are small class sizes, so it’s easy to collaborate and learn from each other. I feel very supported by my program.”

While at Penn, Heather has also traveled the globe to learn about bird banding and sustainable agriculture. The MES program funded an independent study in Belize. She spent a week in a rain forest earning her bird banding certificate from the North American Banding Council.

She also befriended locals who specialize in growing coffee in the shade of native plants. She observed that “You get natural pest control from the birds that are coming for the bugs on these specific plants. There is also better water quality because the native plants are designed to put roots in that particular soil.”

Heather’s capstone ties together everything she’s learned abroad and in the classroom, along with her lifelong interest in sustainable farming. She is conducting “bioblitzes” at two locations: Rushton Farm, a small-scale, organic, pesticide-free farm and a nearby large-scale conventional farm that uses pesticides. She and a team of volunteers measure the biodiversity (plants, bugs, mammals, you name it) of these locations over the course of 24 hours. Her project allows for some level of comparison between the two farming methods.

Though the research isn’t complete she does already have some anecdotal evidence, “I can taste the difference in potatoes grown at Rushton and potatoes I bought at a grocery store.”

Native-focused and pesticide-free farming may not be the cheapest solution (yet), but Heather believes it’s key to positive, long-term change. “We have to stop thinking about two to 10 years from now. We need to start thinking 20 to 50 to 100 years from now. We need to leave this place better than it was left for us.”

Thankfully, we can all do our part with simple solutions. Heather recommends turning your lights off at night, putting a bird feeder out and talking to the folks at your local native plant nursery about what species are best for your backyard.

And as for Heather’s future, her prospects are bright. She recently presented her research to the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Ecological Society of America and soon she will be speaking at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology. She is also mapping out her PhD research and preparing to dive right in.

In her words, “I want to have some impact on the way that we do things. My focus is birds. I know that if we’re doing something to help birds, we’re not just helping birds. By focusing on one specific area, we are helping many,” she continues, “We’re not going to stop development or farming, but we can change things for the better.”

Now in its 20th year, the Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania prepares students like Heather to reach new heights in the environmental field—from careers in conservation to public policy and beyond.

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