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Alumni Spotlight: Anna Normand

2011 Ogden Honors grad receives competitive Knauss Fellowship

Ogden Honors College alum Anna Normand has been quite busy since she graduated from LSU with a degree in chemistry in 2011.  That same year, Normand received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which she’s using to pursue a PhD in Soil and Water Science at the University of Florida. She also just found out she’s been named a 2016 Sea Grant Knauss Fellow. This competitive fellowship places graduate students in oceanic or coastal research-related fields in one-year marine policy positions with the federal government. As one of this year’s top ten applicants, Normand will be placed in a legislative position, and will be working directly with a senator or representative on federal marine policy initiatives. We talked with Normand about how her time as an Ogden student helped prepare her for life—and leadership—after LSU.

How did you first become interested in marine research?

I’ve been into wetlands for a really long time. I did a program in high school called Marsh Maneuvers, which is partly administered by Louisiana Sea Grant. That was my first time extensively exploring and learning about Louisiana coastal wetlands and land loss, and that was transformative for me.

I’m from Opelousas, LA, and I’ve kind of been a Tiger all of my life. I was probably coming to LSU for college no matter what, but what really solidified it was that I got into the LA-STEM Scholarship program, which also meant that I was admitted to the Honors College. When I got to LSU, I knew I wanted to do chemistry, and during the LA-STEM summer bridge program, an environmental physicist came in and talked to us. I was like, “Wow! Physics and chemistry and the environment!” So I looked into chemistry labs at LSU, and I found Dr. Robert Cook’s lab, which is soils-based, studying pesticides. Then through different summer research experiences, I kind of transitioned over time to studying wetlands and wetland soils. I did an REU at Penn State, which was environmental but also more technical, more about instrumentation, and I realized, “I think I want to do something more applied.” The Marsh Maneuvers experience was in the back of my mind all the time. I got another REU the next year and through that worked at LSU with the Wetland Biogeochemistry Group, with Dr. Robert Twilley’s group. I stayed in that lab through my final semester at LSU, and even got to the Everglades during finals week of my last semester. Anyway, I think that’s how things generally work—you keep finding, keep exploring.

You also were awarded an Udall Scholarship while you were at LSU, correct?

Yes, I received that in my junior year. That was really exciting. The Honors College makes you aware of all these opportunities, like the Udall, and all these other fellowships and scholarships and opportunities for research. You get connected with things that you might not run into otherwise. And [Ogden Honors College Director of Fellowship Advising] Dr. Arms really helped me with all of the fellowship applications that I’ve done, especially with how to write an effective personal statement. She kind of taught me everything, and that’s really carried on. So now, when I apply for things, like the Knauss Fellowship—I know how to write personal statements! My answers become better for having that background with Dr. Arms.

The benefits of the Udall, besides the scholarship itself, are the recognition, but also  the opportunities it gives you to meet people. You go to a conference, and everyone is into sustainability and the environment, and I’m into that too, of course, but, you know—I want to save my backyard. Louisiana is experiencing the highest rate of coastal land loss in the world. So all the issues in Louisiana, our wetlands, our land-loss, were really my focus at the time, and they still are. It just rings a bell for me. It’s always in my head, the issues back home. We have a Wetlands Club at the University of Florida, and as vice-president, I just planned this weeklong trip to Louisiana. We took a group of ten Florida students, five undergrads, five grad students, and we went to all around coastal Louisiana—Mandeville, Lafayette, Cameron Parish, Grand Isle, New Orleans. We explored the marsh and shorelines, we met with scientists and government agencies and local historians. We learned about how communities and industries are embedded in and dependent on these coastal ecosystems, what’s driving coastal land-loss, and the state’s Master Plan [for Coastal Sustainability]. We want to make this into a summer field course in the next two years.

So how did you hear about the Knauss Fellowship, and what are you hoping to gain from it? 

I heard about the Knauss Fellowship when I was at LSU, and I knew I was interested, but I had to wait until I was in graduate school to apply. I was interested in it because long-term, I’d really like to be in the government sector. I’d like to work maybe for NOAA, or Louisiana has the Coastal Restoration and Protection Agency, that’s in charge of how we’re going to deal with land loss and run the coast—I want that job! Right now, in my graduate work, I’m doing this very specific chemical soil analysis research. I’m researching freshwater wetlands, called peatlands. They’re really high in organic matter, so they store a lot of carbon, which is really important for climate change. I’m looking at soils from around the world, each with different nutrient concentration, and trying to determine what that soil’s response will be to a changing climate. How will becoming warmer, wetter, or drier affect the organic matter in the soil? Will it continue to store carbon, or will they release that carbon into the atmosphere? I’m pretty excited about that. But, just doing research in a lab won’t totally set me up to work in government or on policy. The Knauss Fellowship will give me that experience. I’ll have a policy position in a legislative office, and hopefully I’ll keep learning how to effectively communicate science and engage in natural resource decision-making. I’ll work with policy makers to develop long-term, sustainable responses to impending challenges for coastal communities. So hopefully, between these two experiences—research and policy—that will really help set me up for the kind of work I want to do.

What advice would you give to a first-year student entering the Ogden Honors College this fall?

One thing about being in the Honors College is that you’re surrounded by the best students at LSU. Everyone’s pretty driven, and there’s a lot of support, especially from the staff. You could always go to anyone’s office in the Honors College and talk about the things that you wanted to do, any classes that are interesting to you, and just kind of spill your guts about anything that’s going on!

Basically the Honors College makes a university of 30,000 people into a college of a few thousand—even though you’re still getting the resources of that 30,000 student university. So I would say to an incoming student, really get involved as much as you can. Live in Laville [Honors House]. It’s a great environment. In Laville, there was a community—lots of people around, you knew everyone, people were always studying together, and there was lots of free food! Take the Honors classes, because they handpick great teachers from each department and subject area to teach them. Go to all the talks and speakers that come to the Honors College, and look into those fellowship and scholarship opportunities. Because once you start building your resume with those kinds of things, it just keeps going.