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The Mason Science Student Experience: Monarch Butterfly and Coral Reef Research

Brittany Grouge
Photo courtesy of Brittany Grouge

Maryland’s Poplar Island wasn’t always a stop along the Monarch Butterfly’s migration south to Mexico. However, an ecosystem rehabilitation initiative started in the late nineties continues to transform Poplar Island from inhabitable land used only for dredged bay materials to a sanctuary for birds and pollinating species.

Environmental Science and Policy master’s student, Brittany Grouge worked alongside biologists and other volunteers last fall to tag as many as 1,000 Monarch Butterflies traveling south. The initiative, led by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit education, conservation, and research program based at Lawrence, Kansas, aims to better understand the insect’s migration patterns.  These butterflies are among the organisms that Poplar Island now attracts through its ecosystem restoration project

Several groups support the island’s rehabilitation including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. Last spring, Grouge was accepted into the USFWS Directorate Fellows Program, a 12-week program offering participants opportunities to work at different refuges nationwide in administrative roles, media, marketing, and other positions. The fellowship assigned Grouge a project at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia where she conducted a composting feasibility study to help the center understand how to better handle their food waste and become greener. At the end of the program, Grouge said she presented her findings to the center’s administration who not only approved it, but are now putting her suggested plans in place.

“It’s a great way to get exposure in the field and see what it’s like working for the federal government,” she said. Grouge added that she’d like to continue public service work after she graduates from Mason in May. 

Grouge started at Mason as an undergraduate biology major with a concentration in conservation. Her semester in Front Royal through the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation offered Grouge a behind the scenes look at invertebrates in a local zoo where she first witnessed one of the zookeepers feeding a coral tank. Grouge said she was so fascinated, that she decided to work at the zoo and spent her time almost exclusively with the corals. 

Now, coral and other invertebrates are at the center of her research. She’s currently partnered with the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and working with her thesis advisor Esther Peters, PhD, to analyze coral disease in the Indo-Pacific Coral Reef. Peters is an Associate Professor in Mason’s Environmental Science and Policy Department.