Shayna Bennett ’17, Math and Environmental Science

Connections with professors and advisors led to unexpected turns in her education and her future.

Shayna Bennett ‘17 says some of her best memories are from her experience at Northern Vermont University-Johnson.

Shayna grew up 30 minutes from the Johnson campus and was homeschooled. During her junior high school year, she took writing classes at NVU-Johnson through the Jumpstart program, which is now called the Dual Enrollment program. Then Shayna took an earth science class. When she handed in her final exam, the professor suggested she apply for a START scholarship, available for Environmental Science majors. After that, her “education took a turn she didn’t expect,” Shayna said.

“There is so much support and so many opportunities at NVU that you wouldn’t get elsewhere,” she said.

Shayna worked with Dr. Kevin Johnston on snow leopard conservation with ArcGIS, and with Dr. Elizabeth Dolci in the microbiology lab, looking at bacteria that grow in a local asbestos mine and the impact of human behavior on that community of bacteria. Throughout, Leslie Kanat, her advisor, encouraged all environmental science majors to take as many math classes as possible. But “I didn’t like math; didn’t get it,” she said. Then it started to make sense to her during a probability and statistics class.

“I started to see how I could tie that into the work I was doing with spatial modeling in ArcGIS. And I took another turn and added math as a second major,” she said. “Math is a different way of thinking, but it isn’t taught that way,” she said.

Research Led the Way to Graduate School

Just before her senior year, associate professor in Mathematics Dr. Greg Petrics suggested that she apply for an undergraduate research experience. Shayna found one at the University of California, Merced — with the professor who is currently her advisor there. That connection is what got her into graduate school, she said.

Shayna is now a Ph.D. student in Applied Mathematics at UC Merced. She is currently in her fourth year of a five-year program, working on a research project using partial differential equations to model how species move across different landscapes and how they interact with each other and the landscape, with a focus on invasive species.

Her advice for new students: “Try to get involved in research and the community outside of the classroom. These experiences will help you so much to go on to what you want to do and to learn what you want to do.” She added that there is personalized help available at a small school. “My connection with my advisor – that was a real beneficial part of going to a place like NVU-Johnson. You can take classes anywhere, but you can’t make these connections anywhere.”