Student Spotlight: Katherine Henning

| Thu, 08/24/23
Katherine Henning, a student in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science.
Katherine Henning, a student in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science. Photo by Devin Bittner.

Katherine Henning is a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in environmental science in Florida State University’s Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. As a sophomore, Henning began her research journey through FSU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program studying the efficacy of pollution mitigation tactics in the Fenholloway River in Perry, Florida.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

Growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, I did not think I would stay in my hometown for college. However, I looked for a school that had great academics, opportunities to make social connections, and an overall supportive and inclusive environment — all of which I found at FSU.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in environmental science?

Being from North Florida, I have always loved spending time at the natural springs, beaches and forests around Tallahassee. I wanted my career to be one where I could make sure these spaces were just as beautiful and natural for future generations. Majoring in environmental science sets me up for a professional life devoted to research and conservation.

Tell us a bit about your research assistantship with the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

In 2021, I began my research assistantship with FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory assistant research faculty member Jeroen Ingels as a sophomore UROP student in his lab, also known as the Meiolab. In the Meiolab, we study meiofauna, which are tiny invertebrates that live within the sediment of all bodies of water, such as nematodes and copepods. Our research centers around monitoring the ecological status of the Fenholloway River, which has a long history of pollution by a cellulose mill. To do this, we use meiofauna as environmental indicators of ecological health.

After a semester as a UROP student, I realized research was my passion. I applied for an IDEA Grant through FSU to fund another year of sampling and event planning to present our research to Perry residents. Receiving this grant allowed me to gain further field experience as well as incorporate informative public communication and engagement, which is an essential aspect to research.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?

Research focused on remediation of natural spaces has become incredibly important in the past 50 years, as our global society begins to realize the lasting effects industry can have on the environment. While we can try to restore a polluted ecosystem, research is needed to deem if these efforts are effective and beneficial. In our study, we have samples of meiofauna from both pre- and post-wastewater pipeline relocation. This allows us to compare all our metrics to gauge ecological quality, and hopefully provide some insight into the effectiveness of conservation efforts on the Fenholloway River.

What has been the most surprising thing you have learned through your research?

Through my research, I have been introduced to the wonderful world of meiofauna, which constantly surprises me with its biodiversity. My current research focuses on nematodes and copepods — two kinds of organisms within this grouping — but there are tens of thousands of other species. Looking through the microscope at our samples reveals a whole world at a much smaller size scale than human reality. Even after nearly three years of working with these organisms, I am always surprised by new creatures that I have not seen before.

What aspect of your areas of study do you find most rewarding?

Fieldwork is the best part of the job. I thoroughly enjoyed being out on the Fenholloway and Econfina rivers taking sediment samples. It only takes two days of fieldwork to collect all the samples we need for an entire year of work, but it is a welcome break from the lab microscope. Fieldwork is also a reminder of why I do this — to conserve and protect natural spaces.

Are there any exciting goals or projects you’re working towards?

My next goal is to pursue graduate school and to assist Dr. Ingels in writing the scientific article on our research.

What on-campus resources have helped you achieve success?

The Center for Undergraduate Research and Engagement has been an amazing resource. I received my first grant, presented my research as a UROP student and then as a keynote speaker at the President’s Showcase for Undergraduate Research at FSU, presented my research at the Atlantic Coast Conference Meeting of the Minds at Virginia Tech, and more. Without the CRE, everything from my introduction to my research mentor and organizing funding for projects to attending scientific conferences would have been harder to navigate.

Are there any faculty or staff who have helped or inspired you?

My research mentor, Dr. Ingels, has been a great resource and role model throughout my research journey. He has helped me every step, from teaching me about meiofauna to preparing me to present at scientific conferences. He is a brilliant researcher, and I aspire to be as great in my own career.

Other professors in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, such as visiting teaching faculty member Danny Goddard, professor of geology and environmental science and associate professor of scientific computing Ming Ye, teaching faculty member Jeff Chagnon, and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Oceanography and Environmental Science Jeff Chanton have been fantastic instructors. Their classes have opened my eyes to the various areas encompassed within an environmental science degree. Thanks to them, I have been able to learn a lot and narrow my interests as I prepare for graduate school.

Following your graduation, what are your plans? Even though you might miss FSU, what are you looking forward to once you graduate?

After graduation, I plan on continuing my education with a master’s degree. I am currently in the search and application process, and I am considering a degree in marine science, oceanography, aquatic ecology, or something similar. Working with meiofauna made me realize my interest in ecology and estuaries, so I hope my next project encompasses these areas.