Living the education
Hillcrest Scholar Emily Thyroff ('15) studies in Australia's rain forest
By Martha Graham
Emily Thyroff ('15) says working with Professor Heather Griscom led to her interest in forest ecology.
Waking in the understory of Australia's rain forest to the sound of tropical birds, scurrying bandicoots and musky kangaroos, Emily Thyroff ('15) is far away from her JMU "home." Thyroff is spending the spring semester in the rain forest.
For four months, the junior biology major from Rochester, N.Y, is living and studying outside in the rain forest as part of The School for Field Studies, earning 16 JMU credits. The school, an international nonprofit, is the premier college level program for undergraduates committed to environmental studies abroad, experiential learning and research. Thyroff is studying rain forest ecology while participating in conservation and restoration efforts.
Thyroff, whose interests include biology and global studies, was encouraged to apply for the scholarship by biology Professor Heather Griscom, herself an alumna of the field school. Griscom also assisted Thyroff during the rigorous scholarship application process.
Thyroff credits Griscom with stirring her interest in forest ecology during a class her sophomore year, studying non-timber products such as ferns, mushrooms, and ginseng. Subsequently, Thyroff worked with Griscom on research on ginseng, an indigenous species once abundant in the Shenandoah Valley that is not doing well today. It's important to find out why because to reintroduce it without understanding why it has declined could make restoration futile, Thyroff says.
The close relationships Thyroff found with Griscom and with Patrice Ludwig, also of the biology department, affirmed her decision to choose JMU. She was heavily influenced by the opportunity to do undergraduate research, as well as because it felt like "home." "Family is everything to me," Thyroff says. And she found a second home at JMU. She tells of one difficult moment during her freshman year when she was teary and homesick: "Dr. Ludwig put me in her office, so I could pull myself together. That meant the world to me."