Sarah Jovan first started noticing lichen during an undergraduate summer immersion course in British Columbia. Having grown up in Ohio, she'd never seen the greenish cast that lichen gives to the western forest, or the tufts of old man’s beard that seem to drip from the trees. That brief visit set her career path. She returned home determined to immerse herself in lichen studies and join the country’s lichen experts. Three years later, she became a research assistant in Dr. Bruce McCune's OSU laboratory.
Sarah’s teachers say she is one of the most focused and determined graduate students the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology has ever known. Her quest to join McCune's research team is a good example of that. She began corresponding with McCune before graduating from Oberlin College, but at the time, his lab could not take on any more students. Rather than accept a graduate opportunity at another institution where the faculty did not match her interests as well, she decided to develop some experience in projects related to lichens through a series of U.S. Forest Service jobs. After two years, a place opened up in McCune's lab, and Sarah joined the team.
"She is one of the rare people one occasionally comes across who has decided what she wants to do and pursues it no matter the obstacles in her way," says Dr. Patricia Muir, a member of Sarah's graduate committee. "She wants to learn all that she can, and is not afraid to jump into new and complex areas of investigation and to learn the new tools that each requires."
Sarah was honored this year with a P.F. & Nellie Buck Yerex Graduate Fellowship. The fellowship recognizes exceptional graduate work in a scientific or technological field. Just three years into her graduate program, Sarah has already built an outstanding record of publications and awards. She has published three research papers, has one in press, and another under review. Though the major portion of her research is funded by the U.S. Forest Service, she has independently pursued and received two additional grants. A frequent presenter at regional and national meetings, she received the Goward Prize for best student paper at the 2002 Northwest Scientific Association conference.
Sarah's work centers on using epiphytic lichen to monitor air quality. She and Dr. McCune have developed statistical models, based on nitrogen deposition in lichen communities, to evaluate the ecological effects of stressors such as air pollution. The work holds promise as a simple, cost-effective system that might be used in developing countries and other areas where direct monitoring programs are cost-prohibitive.
“You’d use direct monitoring initially to calibrate your model,” Sarah explains. “After that, just about anyone could go out in the forest, spend an hour or so with a good pamphlet, and come back with an air pollution estimate. It could really extend the scope of air quality studies.”
Sarah’s research is broadening our understanding of the distribution and impacts of nitrogen-based air pollutants. She plans to continue this work after she finishes her PhD in June of 2005, in a career developing and implementing ecological biomonitoring programs.