Vaughn Shirey (G’24) wants to fill a gap in environmental research by studying northern environments, such as boreal forests, where freezing temperatures occur for six to eight months out of the year. By focusing on butterflies in the boreal forests, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow hopes to bring more attention to threatened ecosystems.
Hometown: Pottstown, Pennsylvania
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Biology (Evolution, Ecology and Animal Behavior)
Undergraduate School: Drexel University, Philadelphia (2017)
Undergraduate Major: Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science
Research: Shirey thinks further study of the ecosystem and of butterflies can help in designing and implementing conservation strategies since boreal forests have experienced intense effects of climate change.
“Butterflies are an excellent group of organisms to study because they are sensitive to environmental change,” says the doctoral student. “They can be used to understand and predict certain biological responses.”
Shirey says many of these forests and organisms remain understudied.
“I hope that my research, conducted on both a global and local scale can provide a springboard for further research in boreal butterfly ecology and conservation,” the scholar says.
Honors and Awards: Shirey felt a strong sense of validation in receiving the NSF Fellowship in 2018.
“So many qualified people apply each year, and I received it in the first year of my program,”says the doctoral candidate.
Shirey, who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs, also notes that receiving the NSF Fellowship has given them the opportunity to be a role model for others in their community.
“As a queer person who had very few, if any, queer role models in science, receiving the fellowship feels like a large accomplishment. I hope to serve as a role model for other folks who may have struggled with their identities in the STEM fields,” they say.
Shirey’s most recent honor, 2020 Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) Young Researchers Awards, recognized the scientist for their effort to address data bias while modeling the long-term impacts of climate and land-use change on butterflies that inhabit the boreal forests of North America and Northern Europe.
The doctoral student is only the second U.S. national to win the award.
Why This Field: Although always fascinated by the sciences, Shirey explains that their real interest in boreal forests grew while they were studying in Helsinki, Finland on a Fulbright Scholarship.
“The forest was a place I would go to ground myself,” they say. “I wanted to make sure it was a place I could work with and learn from during my Ph.D.”
A Professor’s View: Biology professor Leslie Ries has served as Shirey’s advisor and worked with them in the Ries Lab of Butterfly Informatics.
“Vaughn is a tremendously creative and independent thinker who has charted their own path since arriving at our lab,” she says. “With their combination of data science skills, passion for serving the community and commitment to high-latitude field work in a vast and logistically challenging ecoregion, Vaughn has all the qualities of a leader for the next generation of ecologists.”
Why Georgetown?: Shirey found Georgetown to be a place where they could continue to explore and develop their interests.
“I was really excited about my advisor’s interest in butterflies and global change as well as her approach using both laboratory experiments and data science,” Shirey explains. “I’m thankful she has allowed me to pursue my interest in boreal forest ecology.”