Sonya Havens, Bachelor's in Environmental Science '03

Measuring Human Impact

Studying the Sustainability of Freshwater Resources

Sonya Havens ’03 is a research chemist at one of the world’s largest freshwater research stations. The work she does with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) aims to understand how humans impact the environment. Sonya is thrilled that she gets to wake up each day and contribute to making the world more sustainable. The many experiential learning opportunities offered by USF’s Environmental Science program inspired her to get out of the classroom and learn by literally getting her hands (and hair) dirty.

What made you want to work at the IISD-ELA?
I love that I get to use my skills in analytical environmental chemistry and be a part of large scale projects that influence our knowledge of freshwater science. The IISD-ELA is a natural laboratory comprised of 58 small lakes and their watersheds in Northwestern Ontario, which are set aside for scientific research. By manipulating these lakes, we are able to examine how all aspects of the ecosystem respond to environmental disruptions, which I believe is extremely important.

I also have the opportunity to train students on how to conduct various analyses and provide them with skills that will help them in their career. I love being able to live, work, and raise my kids in the majestic boreal forest surrounded by brilliant minds. It’s really a dream job for me.

How did the Environmental Science program help prepare you for your career?
To be a good scientist, you have to be an effective communicator. The writing and public speaking courses I took were extremely useful in preparing me for the rigors of presenting of my research orally and in writing. I worked with Professor Jack Lendvay and the Literacy for Environmental Justice course, where we hired high school students to assist us in conducting an environmental assessment of the Yosemite Slough in the Bayview Hunter’s Point community of San Francisco. This was my first experience with environmental research and it really inspired me.

This project afforded me the opportunity to learn how to conduct a water quality assessment as well as train youth to do so. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I gained from this experience was that when you bring students to the science, as opposed to merely teaching it in a classroom, they feel a sense of ownership; they’re inspired to learn more, motivated to work harder, and are invested in the results. They realize that science can be more than just a classroom project.

What is your favorite memory from your time in the program?
One of my favorite memories was when I was working with Prof. Lendvay in the Yosemite Slough. We were collecting soil core samples in the mud flat of the slough during low tide. We were working fast because we were running out of daylight and the tide was starting to come in and as a result we got incredibly muddy. Everything above the waders was covered in mud. My hair was caked with mud; you’ve heard of the man bun? This was a mud bun. Well, after a long day of working in the mud, we were quite hungry and decided to get a bite at a restaurant. We showed up to that restaurant covered in mud and sat down to eat dinner as if everything was totally normal. We got a few a looks, but they seemed like they were trying to figure out why we were covered in mud rather than judging us for showing up to a restaurant in such a state.

How do you continue to carry on USF's mission?
I’m proud to be a graduate of a university that educates and inspires its students to make a positive impact on the world. After graduating from USF, I was inspired to pursue a career that would be a useful contribution to the world. Continuing to work in the field of environmental science has afforded me this opportunity. The research we do at the IISD-ELA improves our understanding of human impacts on the environment, influences policy and environmental best practices, and supports public awareness of environmental issues, all of which contribute to a more sustainable world.