CENTER VALLEY, Pa.— As environmental stewards, it is the job of humans to leave the planet better than we found it. Addressing environmental issues around the globe and working with students to formulate effective and sustainable solutions has been a major part of Penn State Lehigh Valley (PSU-LV) faculty member Jacqueline McLaughlin’s life’s work. McLaughlin is an associate professor of biology and founding director of PSU-LV’s award-winning CHANCE -- Connecting Humans and Nature through Conservation Experiences -- program, a distinctive model introduced in 2004 which combines study abroad with embedded opportunities for undergraduate research in environmental sustainability.
McLaughlin spent 10 years in China studying and conducting research with her students on issues related to water quality in the Yangtze River and Lake Tai. She and her students have also investigated invasive species and macroalgal blooms that are imperiling the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Three years ago, McLaughlin was nominated by the National Academy of Sciences to serve as a Jefferson Science Fellow wherein she held a year-long position as a science adviser to the U.S. Department of State (DoS) in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in Washington D.C. In that role, McLaughlin explained, “One of the hats I was given was to coordinate and evaluate the Embassy Science Fellows (ESF) Program, which is designed to promote scientific personnel deployment in support of diplomacy. We sent 60 government scientists to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to carry out science diplomacy during my tenure.”
While she was working on the ESF program, she was personally asked to serve as an ESF in the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, to assist the Romanian Ministry of Research and Education and various Romanian institutions of higher education with the implementation of high impact practices in STEM education, her specialty. “It was during my fellowship in Romania that I connected with top administrators and research scientists at University of Bucharest (UB). From the moment I was at UB until now, CHANCE has flourished.” Even a global pandemic could not stop the program’s growth and the important environmental work that needs to be done. “Upon my return to the mainland, I told my new colleagues at UB and the DoS that I was going to build a long-lasting partnership between our universities such that our students would work side-by-side to help solve the demise of the Danube River, COVID pandemic or no COVID pandemic,” she said. The Danube River, which runs for 1,800 miles through 10 countries -- including Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia -- has a distinctive history of sustainability. Heavily polluted when bordering countries were industrializing under Soviet rule, the river began to recover in the 1990s, but is now threatened again, particularly by the presence of micro-plastics, pesticides and industrial waste.
This summer, McLaughlin will take the next step in her professional career when she returns to Eastern Europe. She was recently named special counselor to the vice rector of research at the University of Bucharest, Romania. McLaughlin’s highly distinguished role as special counselor tasks her as an adviser to Professor Carmen Chifiriuc, vice rector of research to assist with the development of international opportunities and exchanges between Penn State and the UB - and other universities and partners throughout the European Union. The goal is to use education, research, diplomacy and outreach to augment the sustainability of the Danube River system through the framework of the Penn State CHANCE program.
During her return visit to Romania this summer, McLaughlin will also lead a group of Romanian students in a once-in-a-lifetime field research practicum. Offered in conjunction with the UB and Penn State Global Programs, and supported by the DoS, CHANCE Romania 2021 programming featured a mid-semester novel course, developed during the coronavirus pandemic, “Global Conservation: Environmental Challenges Facing the Danube River,” to prepare students for a summer 2021 study abroad field practicum in Romania. In this course, 12 Penn State students and 12 University of Bucharest students and faculty from both institutions of varied disciplines carried out an online, binational course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) on the eutrophication (algal blooms) of the Danube River basin using real data mentored by top-scientists.
Beyond their research experiences, students learned about sustainability per the United Nations Sustainability Goals (UN SDGs), and gained essential research skills, strengthened their advocacy abilities, and fostered cross-cultural competencies. Penn State was forced to cancel their students’ summer research practicum on the Danube Delta due to COVID-related travel concerns. From July 5 to 23, McLaughlin and her co-instructor for this program, Kathleen Fadigan, however, will still travel to Romania to lead the field practicum in person for UB students and faculty. This two-course program is set to run again in the spring and summer 2022 and for years to come.
“The data students collect this summer and, in the future, will be used to generate valuable evidence on the water pollution of the Danube Delta and will facilitate discussions between stakeholders in Romania and throughout the EU to augment shifts in policy to better manage environmental protection and the implementation of sustainable strategies to preserve this invaluable river and its delta.” McLaughlin explained. As a professor, McLaughlin says, her aim is to “create environments where students address issues that are important to the world.” Clean water is a fundamental part of everyday life for many areas of the world, but not all countries have this privilege. McLaughlin also stresses the importance of applying classroom theory to hands-on field experience to bring about meaningful change. “We are allowing students to embrace real-world issues through rigorous undergraduate research and to work to define sustainable answers -- all while creating opportunities to advocate for change with politicians, international agencies and university leaders,” she explained.
In her appointment letter, Professor Chifiriuc recognized McLaughlin’s dedication and commitment to developing and implementing a strong partnership between the University of Bucharest and Penn State. She writes McLaughlin’s work has not only elevated research at the university, “but has taught all involved, be they administrators (like myself) or research faculty and graduate students, to be creative, unconventional, and brave in curricular design, pedagogy,and global connections such that every lesson or experience is a unique masterpiece in student engagement and civic responsibility.”
McLaughlin is excited about the partnership and its potential opportunities. “This is an unbelievable milestone for CHANCE,” McLaughlin said. “Penn State has not just partnered with the world-renowned University of Bucharest, but with the European Union and the U.S. Department of State. Together we have the capacity to promote change in managing the environmental protection of, and implementing sustainable strategies that, protect the Blue Danube through education, diplomacy, outreach.”