Class of 2021: College of Science’s Outstanding Doctoral Student continues passion as postdoctoral researcher, educator
Mary Lofton, the Virginia Tech College of Science’s Outstanding Doctoral Student for 2021, has long held a passion for aquatic ecology and water resources.
Years before joining the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences as a Ph.D. student, Lofton was a teacher at two boarding schools, first at Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland, from 2010 to 2013, and then at Miller School of Albemarle in Crozet, Virginia, from 2013 to 2015.
In the classroom, she found that water sustainability excited her biology and environmental science students. Some of the students focused on water equality or freshwater availability and global social justice, while others enjoyed digging for aquatic life in a stream. Still, others enjoyed having a 55-gallon aquarium in the classroom to raise trout fry for stocking local streams. In many ways, those passions mirrored her own youth.
“I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, playing in the creek behind our house and catching minnows and crayfish and so on,” Lofton said of her youth in Crozet, Virginia. “My decision to go into biology was made in college, because I knew I wanted a job that allowed me to go outside and be active at least some of the time.”
She graduated from William and Mary College in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Her studies there focused on ecology and conservation biology, and she participated in research relating to rare plant conservation in Virginia. Graduate school was only a natural next step, if a few years away.
“One of the things that draws me is the ability of water quality to bring people together,” she said. “It’s a unifying topic. Everyone wants good quality freshwater, and so that brings people together to take care of our natural resources. I like the fact that I get to learn about how ecosystems work and feel that my research has a practical application to improve water quality at the same time.”
Since 2015, Lofton has worked in the lab of and collaborated with Cayelan Carey, an associate professor of biological sciences. Her goal as a student was to help find ways to sustainably provide high-quality freshwater resources to all communities. Lofton finished her dissertation in June, where she focused on dynamic changes in the phytoplankton community due to climate change and water management decisions.
She will graduate from Virginia Tech this week.
At Virginia Tech, Lofton also helped lead the field research program at the Western Virginia Water Authority’s (WVWA) reservoirs from 2016 to 2019 and served as the WVWA Fellow from 2017 to 2019. Her primary focus was on the Falling Creek Reservoir in Vinton, Virginia, the main water supply for Roanoke County. In this role, she was in weekly communication with reservoir managers about water quality sampling and research findings. She said working with the managers taught her how to translate her academic research findings into meaningful take-homes to help address water quality concerns.
“I’ve taken the responsibility of working with the Western Virginia Water Authority at their drinking water reservoirs very seriously,” Lofton added. “It definitely gives purpose to our research to be working on drinking water supply reservoirs. That’s very motivating. Improved understanding of how the ecosystem is functioning can translate directly to water management decisions.”
Lofton has won many awards during her time as a graduate student. Among the honors are the Leo Bourassa award from the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association and the 2018-19 William R. Walker Graduate Research Fellow Award from the Virginia Water Resources Research Center. She also is an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow in the Virginia Tech Global Change Center, part of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and has served as co-chair of the of the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network Student Association (GSA).
In a 2018 GSA blog post, Lofton wrote, “As a graduate student, my favorite thing about the [GSA] community is its grassroots nature – by which I mean that students are given the opportunity to work alongside, chat with, and receive feedback from research scientists at all career stages from around the world.”
Lofton is staying at Virginia Tech as a post-doctorate researcher working with Carey and Quinn Thomas, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment. Her work will focus on ecological forecasting of phytoplankton in lakes and reservoirs and helping to develop educational modules to teach undergraduates about ecological forecasting.
“This position provides me with a fabulous opportunity to gain experience in lake ecosystem modeling and near-term ecological forecasting techniques, which can be extremely useful to water resource managers to provide predictions of future water quality,” Lofton said.
This semester, she also served as an instructor for Biology 4004, a freshwater ecology class in the College of Science. “I’ve really enjoyed getting back in the classroom and gaining some experience as a college instructor,” Lofton said. “The students are incredibly energizing. A big part of this course is semester-long independent research projects on the ecology of our local freshwaters that the students design and execute in small teams. I've been so impressed with their enthusiasm and the caliber of their projects.”
On Lofton's time as a student, Carey added: “Since Mary began her Ph.D. in my lab in summer 2016, she has led two unprecedented whole-ecosystem experiments in Falling Creek Reservoir, a drinking water supply reservoir in Roanoke, Virginia, to study how phytoplankton respond to storm-driven mixing events, which are expected to increase with climate change. Whole-ecosystem experiments such as this are extremely rare in ecology, and this work has already yielded exciting results for both Mary’s Ph.D. as well as water managers, as evident by her three papers already submitted, with two more on the way.”
Lofton highlighted how Carey mentored her in interdisciplinary research. “Dr. Carey is incredibly skilled at building high-functioning collaborative teams to conduct interdisciplinary research,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to meet scientists from around the world within my own field as well as researchers in other fields ranging from civil engineering to computer science, thanks to her ability to develop diverse research working groups. Working with great people across a variety of fields of expertise has been a super-rewarding part of my graduate experience.”
Of her experience, so far, at Virginia Tech, Lofton added: “The Virginia Tech community has provided me with a fabulous, supportive, and stimulating graduate education experience. Whether through the the Stream Team in biological sciences, the Interfaces of the Global Change Program, or the Cross-Boundary Biogeosciences group at Virginia Tech, there have been so many communities that have introduced me to researchers across the university and provided me with opportunities to learn from water resource researchers, ecological researchers, and global change researchers in addition to people within my lab.”