Graduate biology student, Sarah McGrath, pursues her passion for conservation


SUMMARY: Sarah McGrath's research in conservation provides opportunities for two conference presentations and First Place and People's Choice Award at JMU's Three Minute Thesis competition.

Sarah McGrath picture

By Alyse Lehrke

From her role as president of the Graduate Student Association to her first place win at JMU’s Three Minute Thesis competition, Sarah McGrath thrives as a second year graduate student in the Biology program at JMU. She’s pursuing her passion for conservation while polishing her professional skills in a variety of ways. Her time as a graduate student is having a profound impact on her future work by giving her the chance to explore areas of research, collaborate with her cohort, and practice strong leadership skills.

Sarah’s career path started with her childhood love for animals. She credits her mom with ensuring Sarah had the opportunity to develop her interests. Sarah’s mother spent her birthday volunteering at the sign-up table for a nearby science center to make sure Sarah had a spot in the youth volunteer program. At 16, Sarah started working with animals as a Junior Curator. During her time at the science center, she discovered that she especially enjoyed working with the reptiles and amphibians, a field of study called Herpetology.

After earning an undergraduate degree in Zoology, she landed an internship doing field work with a herpetologist in Southeast Asia. She spent three months in Borneo, discovering the challenges and positive impact of amphibian conservation in the tropics. She explained one challenge to conservation by saying, “People get busy and don’t stop to think about what we’re doing to the planet. They wonder, why should we care about frogs disappearing in Asia?” She’s hoping to help answer that question by contributing to a better understanding of how frogs are affected by environmental changes around the world and what that means for the future of our planet.

During a subsequent trip to Borneo at the beginning of her graduate program, she learned the practical realities of field work, including the discovery that her original research idea, to study the skin secretions of a Bornean frog, would not work because she only found four of this type of frog. With the guidance of her mentors, she started investigating microbiomes (microscopic organisms associated with a host), and more specifically, the microbiomes of the amphibian skin of foam nesting frogs in Southeast Asia. These frogs were plentiful and could provide insight into how organisms acquire their microbiome, so Sarah charted a new course for her amphibian research. Through this experience, she learned an important lesson in flexibility, explaining, “It’s okay to change directions to pursue a new idea.” Sarah’s new research project proved successful and was even funded by National Geographic through a Young Explorers Grant.

When choosing a graduate school, she looked for a faculty member who could help her pursue her passion for amphibian research. After meeting Dr. David McLeod over a video call, she knew working with him in JMU’s Biology program was the right fit. As Sarah’s advisor, Dr. McLeod facilitates her studies and shares his specialized knowledge in Southeast Asian amphibians. He has the knowledge and experience to offer guidance for Sarah’s thesis project, entitled Exploring the Microbiome: Diversity of the Microbial Community of Three Foam Nesting Frogs. Sarah says finding “an advisor you want to work with and can work well with” is the key to a rich and rewarding graduate experience.

In the Biology program, Sarah describes her cohort as a tight knit group. They share office and lab space so they get to know each other and learn about each other’s projects. For Sarah, one of her most rewarding achievements is the opportunity she’s had to mentor undergraduate students. She feels good about helping others succeed by sharing what she’s learned. Together, Sarah and her undergraduate mentee, Althea Neighbors, have completed field work for a grant that resulted in two conference presentations, a presentation at a biology symposium, a field work position in the summer for Althea, and an upcoming co-authored publication.

Adding to Sarah’s impressive list of accomplishments is her recent sweep of both the First Place and People’s Choice Award at JMU’s Three Minute Thesis competition. She joined the competition to strengthen her ability to communicate her research to a general audience. The biggest challenge, according to Sarah, was figuring out how to relate the very specific topic to a lay audience and fit it all in three minutes. Once she drafted her script, she practiced in front of her mom, and edited some more. The experience gave her fresh confidence in her ability to share the importance of her conservation work with the public and brought her work to the attention of a wider audience. She says, “It was a rewarding and worthwhile experience.”

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Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Last Updated: Thursday, January 23, 2020

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