Admissions Blog: Abby Cahill ’21 shares her experience in environmental science


By Abby Cahill ’21, environmental science major

When I first made my way to Sweet Briar, I came as I was: without a reusable straw, buying the latest in trendy clothes each season and not thinking about the source of my food or drink. Nonetheless, I had long been interested in sustainability and learning the how and why of the natural world and the unique, catalyzing position of humans within it.

At the first Quad Rocks event during my first year, I eagerly signed up for the sustainability club. My conversations with friends in the club, coupled with my classes in the leadership core program and my environmental science major, lead to the realization that more needed to be done about sustainability, both on campus and in the outside world. By sophomore year, I had embraced thrifting and kept a reusable straw in a tote bag that I carried with me. The club had petered out, and there were rumors of a greenhouse project being undertaken at the College. With Lisa Powell, professor and director of the Center for Human and Environmental sustainability, and a few of my closest friends that I had grown to know in our classes (and weekends) together, I set out to restart the club and try to recenter the conversation in a greener direction.

The most important aspect of sustainability on campus is student involvement, not only because being more eco-conscious is of personal importance to many of us, but also because we can become better stewards of our resources and influence administrative decisions in the long-term. The faculty, students and community members championing inclusive, conscientious and relevant sustainability efforts are of growing importance in the Sweet Briar conversation.

Today, I am president of the sustainability club, I hold a position as a greenhouse assistant working on campus, part of my senior research involves helping design a sustainability plan for the college, and I’ve spent a summer doing honors research on sustainable agriculture and forest farming. During my time here, my convictions have been challenged, reshaped and strengthened. My experiences have become more relevant to the line of work I want to pursue, and I’ve allowed my education to permeate through my life and been emboldened by it. I am passionate and excited about what I can continue to learn from the world as I move my way forward into it. 

My honors research project
Interplanted mushrooms and vegetable crops

The summer of 2020 was a challenging one, to say the least. The spring of my sophomore year was cut short with COVID-19 forcing classes to move online. However, the situation wasn’t as dire as it seemed. With Professor Powell, I was able to convert the honors research proposal I had been planning for weeks into something feasible for COVID. My summer research was an investigation of potential symbiotic relationships between interplanted mushrooms and vegetable crops.

I explored the roles of mushrooms in soil health and conducted scoping work on the potential for mushroom cultivation and other types of forest farming on the Sweet Briar campus. Alternative agriculture is a rapidly expanding field as climate and environmental issues juxtapose an ever-increasing world population teetering atop an industrialized agricultural system. Holistic, creative solutions, such as the ones investigated in this research, have the potential to help alleviate tensions between the environment and society while contributing to efforts to achieve food systems sustainability.

I worked with Professor Powell to run field experiments exploring the potential of intercropping mushrooms with various types of plants in order to improve soil health, plant health and yield. While she worked on campus, I was able to conduct research remotely from my home-garden in Powhatan, Va. 

At Sweet Briar, we put into place a divided plot of tomatoes, with mycelium (the biotic filament associated with mushroom growth) on one side of the barrier and the control…

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