About UP: Rising Stars
Kendra Chritz '09
A graduate of both the University of Portland and Vancouver Christian High School in Vancouver, Wash., Chritz is currently in Kenya doing research in paleoecological reconstruction. Her research is part of a doctoral program at the University of Utah and funded by a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship.
The fellowship includes a $30,000 annual stipend for each of three years, and an additional $10,500 is awarded for each of three years to the University of Utah to help cover tuition and other expenses. Chritz, who graduated from the University of Portland in 2009 with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, is still in the first year of her three-year fellowship. That’s because she took a year off to teach.
But the break did not lessen her enthusiasm for her research, which is focusing on understanding how changes in the strength of the East African monsoon affected ecosystem structure in the Turkana Basin in northern Kenya over the last 10,000 years.
“This is important for understanding ecosystem response to climate changeon a fine scale and then applying that knowledge to large scale climate perturbations in the tropics,” said Chritz. “Such climatic perturbations have been suggested to have driven human evolution, as well as speciation and diversification of many other organisms in East Africa, over the past 7 million years.”
Chritz is also working with a team of archaeologists from Stony Brook University and the Turkana Basin Institute.
“We'll be traveling to Lake Turkana this summer for a series of digs on human occupation sites during the Holocene (the last 10,000 years of geologic time) and to conduct more research for my thesis,” she said. “I'm also working with scientists at the Kenya Wildlife Service on modern hippo ecology by looking at the chemistry of their tooth enamel, and at City University of New York on modern great ape ecology in Uganda.”
She is currently spending a semester and a half at an associate’s organic geochemistry lab at Pennsylvania State University, conducting research and fostering collaborations there.
Chritz’s prior research involved the Irish elk and led to her presentation at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology in Bristol, UK. Her talk involved her research concerning the extinction of the Irish elk, one of the largest deer species that ever lived.
The giant animal, which had massive antlers spanning nearly 12 feet, suddenly became extinct some 11,800 years ago. The undergraduate research headed by Chritz suggests that the deer couldn’t cope with the rapidly cooling climate at that time. As conditions became colder and drier in Ireland, fewer plants grew, gradually starving the deer. Her research on the giant deer was the subject of an online news article on BBC.
Chritz returned to Kenya last summer for a month of fieldwork in Turkana and a month of work in the National Museums of Kenya. She also traveled to Italy for a month-long international course on paleoclimatology and oceanography to study how scientists can reconstruct past climate change and project future climate change scenarios.
She hopes to conclude her doctorate and fellowship concurrently. She then plans to teach, apply for one of the University of Utah’s graduate research fellowships, or apply for an NSF teaching fellowship, which provides opportunities for graduate students to lead inquiry-based science education in local K-12 schools.
Chritz still appreciates the support she received by University of Portland professors, including her undergraduate advisor Michael Snow and research advisor Ronda Bard, “who are both so dedicated to their students.”
“My experience at the University of Portland was wonderful,” Chritz said. “It was a really supportive environment to learn science in.”
Likewise, she is thriving as a post graduate student.
“I enjoy the challenges and opportunities that an academic career in science offers me,” she said. “My research is the perfect combination of laboratory and rather adventurous fieldwork, as well as a great deal of interaction with other scientists and with the general public.”
Chritz added, “I'm very excited about the prospect of a long career of scientific inquiry and public education about the incredible planet we live on. Hopefully I can offer a better understanding of our role in the environment and how its constantly changing nature affects us.”
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