Class of 2021: Outstanding College of Science PhD Student Pursues Passion as Postdoctoral Fellow, Educator | VTx


Mary Lofton, an outstanding 2021 doctoral student at Virginia Tech College of Science, has a long-standing passion for aquatic ecology and water resources.

Years before joining the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences as a doctorate. A student, Lofton taught at two residential schools, first at Saint James School in Hagerstown, Md., From 2010 to 2013, and then at Miller School of Albemarle in Crozet, Va., From 2013 to 2015.

In class, she discovered that her students in biology and environmental sciences were passionate about water sustainability. Some students focused on water equality or the availability of fresh water and global social justice, while others enjoyed digging for aquatic life in a stream. Still, others appreciated having a 55 gallon aquarium in the classroom to raise trout fry for stocking local streams. In many ways, these passions reflected his own youth.

“I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid playing in the creek behind our house and catching minnows and crayfish and so on. Lofton said of his youth in Crozet, Va. “My decision to go into biology was made in college, because I knew I wanted a job that allowed me to get out and be active at least part of the time.”

She graduated from William and Mary College in 2010 with a BA in Biology. Her studies there focused on ecology and conservation biology, and she was involved in research relating to the conservation of rare plants in Virginia. Doctoral school was only a natural next step, if not in a few years.

“One of the things that attracts me is the ability of water quality to bring people together,” she said. “It’s a unifying subject. Everyone wants good quality fresh water, which brings people together to take care of our natural resources. I love learning how ecosystems work and feeling that my research has practical application in improving water quality at the same time.

Since 2015, Lofton has worked in the lab and collaborates with Cayelan Carey, associate professor of biological sciences. Her goal as a student was to help find ways to sustainably deliver high quality freshwater resources to all communities. Lofton completed her thesis in June, where she focused on dynamic changes in the phytoplankton community due to climate change and water management decisions.

She will graduate from Virginia Tech this week.

At Virginia Tech, Lofton also helped lead the Western Virginia Water Authority (WVWA) Reservoir Field Research Program from 2016 to 2019 and was a WVWA Fellow from 2017 to 2019. His primary focus was on Falling Creek Reservoir in Vinton, Virginia. , the main source of water for Roanoke County. In this role, she was in weekly communication with reservoir managers regarding water quality sampling and research results. She said working with managers taught her how to translate the results of her academic research into meaningful results to help solve water quality problems.

“I took the responsibility of working with the Western Virginia Water Authority on their drinking water tanks very seriously,” Lofton added. “This of course gives reason to our research to work on drinking water supply reservoirs. It’s very motivating. A better understanding of how the ecosystem works can translate directly into water management decisions.

Lofton won numerous awards during his graduate studies. Honors include the Leo Bourassa Award from the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association and the William R. Walker Graduate Research Fellow 2018-2019 from the Virginia Water Resources Research Center. She is also an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow at the Virginia Tech Global Change Center, part of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and was co-chair of the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network Student Association (GSA).

In a GSA 2018 blog post, Lofton wrote: “As a graduate student, my favorite thing about the [GSA] community is its basic nature – by that I mean students have the opportunity to work alongside, chat with, and receive feedback from researchers at all stages of their careers around the world.

Lofton remains at Virginia Tech as a post-doctoral researcher working with Carey and Quinn Thomas, associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment. His work will focus on ecological prediction of phytoplankton in lakes and reservoirs and help develop educational modules to teach undergraduate students about ecological prediction.

“This position gives me a fabulous opportunity to gain experience in modeling lake ecosystems and short-term ecological forecasting techniques, which can be extremely useful for water resource managers to provide predictions on future quality. of water, ”Lofton said.

This semester she was also an instructor for Biology 4004, a freshwater ecology course at the College of Science. “I really enjoyed going back to the classroom and gaining the experience as an instructor in college,” Lofton said. “The students are incredibly energizing. Much of this course consists of independent one-semester research projects on the ecology of our local freshwater that students design and execute in small teams. I was so impressed with their enthusiasm and the caliber of their projects.

Of Lofton as a student, Carey added, “Ever since Mary started her PhD. in my lab in the summer of 2016, she conducted two unprecedented whole-ecosystem experiments at Falling Creek Reservoir, a drinking water supply reservoir in Roanoke, Va., to study how phytoplankton respond to mixing events brought on by storms, which are expected to increase with the currency climate. Ecosystem-wide experiments like this are extremely rare in ecology, and this work has already yielded some exciting results for Mary’s PhD. as well as water managers, as evidenced by its three articles already submitted, with two others in progress.

Lofton pointed out how Carey framed her in interdisciplinary research. “Dr. Carey is incredibly good at building high-level collaborative teams to conduct interdisciplinary research,” she said. “I have enjoyed meeting scientists from all over the world in my field as well as researchers in various fields. other fields ranging from civil engineering to computer science, thanks to his ability to develop diverse research working groups. Working with great people in a variety of areas of expertise has been a very rewarding part of my graduate experience .

Commenting on his experience so far at Virginia Tech, Lofton added, “The Virginia Tech community has provided me with a fabulous, encouraging and inspiring graduate experience. Whether it was through the Stream team in Biological Sciences, the Interfaces of the Global Change program, or the Cross-Boundary Biogeosciences group at Virginia Tech, there have been so many communities that have introduced me to researchers through university and provided me with opportunities to learn from water resources researchers, ecology researchers and global change researchers in addition to the people in my lab. “


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