Alumni Update: Paige Copenhaver (’11)

Yale and Dartmouth had both offered her a full ride scholarship, but for Paige Copenhaver the choice was clear. “I chose to come to George Fox instead of the Ivy Leagues,” she says, “and I’m really happy with that decision.”

A biology major who graduated in December of 2011 after just two and a half years of undergraduate work, Copenhaver’s 2180 SAT score and impressive high school resume allowed her the freedom to attend just about any college in the country. But in the end Paige chose to accept presidential merit and science scholarships from George Fox, which allowed her to learn about the world around her from a Christian perspective – a rare luxury in her field.

“That’s a pretty secular world,” she explains,” and I wanted to have a foundation in a Christian education before I moved off into that.”

Today, she is pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Wyoming. Read on for an update from Paige on her latest adventures in field research, and her continued commitment to bring glory to God through her work.

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After graduating in December with my BS in biology: ecology and field biology, I had a bit of a gap before starting grad school. At that point in time, my applications were all in and it was just a waiting game to see if and where I would be accepted. I accepted a job with the Washington Conservation Corps through the Washington Department of Ecology constructing backcountry trails and doing wetland mitigation work with a crew of young adults. It was a great way to pass the time and get a break from academic work while spending my days outside. In March my grad school acceptance letters arrived and I vacillated back and forth between the biology department at Syracuse University and the Botany department here at the University of Wyoming. Eventually, God made it crystal clear that Wyoming was where He wanted me and I accepted a position working under Dr. Daniel Tinker in the Tinker Lab for Forest and Fire Ecology in the Botany Department.

Dan’s work focuses primarily on the response of forests to disturbances, specifically to wildland fire. Rather than starting with an academic semester, I was asked to start my grad work with a two-month field season in Yellowstone studying succession in a series of lodgepole pine stands that burned in the large 1988 fires. Of course, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to spend my summer backpacking around the Yellowstone backcountry measuring trees! In late June, I moved all of my belongings into a storage unit here in Laramie, met up with Dan and my lab mate, Kellen, and set off for Yellowstone. My portion of the project involved developing a series of allometric equations to predict aboveground biomass, aboveground net primary production and leaf area index in ~20 year old lodgepole stands across a density gradient in burned plots. These equations will help to increase understanding of changes in forest recovery following fire. My work involved harvesting, measuring and drying a sample of 60 trees while assisting with the rest of the study. Over the summer, our field crew sampled over 80 plots throughout the park and spent our days on the trails and in the Yellowstone backcountry. It was an absolutely incredible place to live for the summer and we had so many fantastic experiences. We also came out with a great data set, and all of us involved are now busy back in Laramie processing samples, entering data, and writing papers to summarize our results.

As soon as I am able to wrap up the allometry work, I will begin the research that will form the focus of my dissertation. I intend to continue work in Yellowstone sampling double-burn sites to better understand how a shortened fire return interval as a result of climate change will alter the Yellowstone landscape. Simply, current climate and forest succession models predict that drier, warmer weather will cause fires to occur much more frequently than what the forests are currently adapted to. This may change a number of structural and functional conditions and, at its extreme, is hypothesized to transform the lodgepole pine forests into montane woodland ecosystems (a lot of shrubs, few trees). I will spend the next few field seasons working in sites that have burned more than once in the past 30 years to try to understand how more frequent fires are changing species composition, stand structure, and a variety of functional characteristics.

Overall, my grad school experience up to this point has been incredibly positive. It’s such a blessing to have the opportunity to spend my days working on issues I’m passionate about. Laramie is a fantastic community and I’m surrounded by loving, caring people and a strong church community. I intend to complete my program in four or five years and will likely move on to a postdoc to continue my work on forest ecology, disturbance ecology and climate change. Eventually, I hope to secure a faculty position at a research institution. I’m certainly praying that I’ll end up back in the Pacific Northwest! Ultimately, I’d like to develop my own research program centered on disturbance ecology in forest ecosystems and to fill up my lab with grad students who I can mentor and take out on fantastic field adventures!

One of my biggest goals for my time in academia (both now and after graduation) is to treat my field as a mission field. I feel as though God has given me an incredible gift in my scientific understanding and analytical approach to life, and it is something that I share with most other scientists. An analytical and scientific approach to faith and religion is not always common, and I think it is largely responsible for the lack of Christians in the biological sciences. I’m positive that God has given me these gifts so that I can use them to bring Him glory. To me, that means sharing my faith with those I work with and working to show them that science and Christianity are incredibly compatible – our research only serves to illuminate the work of our Creator. So far, it’s been a fun adventure learning how to integrate my faith and research and how to share my passions with all of the brilliant people I work with everyday. I’m praying that God will continue to give me the tools to do His work here in the scientific community and will continue to reinforce my calling to this field.