Interfaces of Global Change Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Heather Govenor

June 25, 2021

Cave exploring, rambling over moss-covered rocks, and weekend hikes with her sister and father are some of the cherished childhood memories of Interfaces of Global Change (IGC) alumna Dr. Heather Govenor. For as far back as she can remember, Heather has been “interested in how living things interact with their environment” she says. She credits these family trips as instilling a deep appreciation of nature and an interest in how changes in the environment are ultimately a reflection of human activity. This early fascination with the paradoxical fragility and resilience of nature fueled her research and career efforts to reduce society’s impact on the environment.

Before joining the Virginia Tech community, Heather earned her BS in Biology from Penn State University where her research focused on insect populations. While there, she developed a passion for science communication that paralleled her work as a researcher, ultimately leading her to the IGC Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP) and the Global Change Center (GCC).

From coordinating elementary school enrichment programs in Erie, PA to developing and leading English as a Second Language (ESL) curricula for children and adults, Heather recognized the importance of communication skills and advocacy. “I’ve always been interested in helping someone achieve their goals,” Heather reflects, “and strived to cultivate a more collaborative environment for research and outreach.”

Heather then moved west and entered Michigan State University’s Master’s in Entomology program, with a focus in Specialization Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. While there, she evaluated the impacts of abiotic (e.g., light, nutrient) and biotic (e.g., prior season’s defoliation) stressors on the defensive chemistry and growth of paper birch and sugar maple tree populations and the health of insects feeding on those trees. After successfully defending her MS, she joined an international engineering and consulting firm as an environmental specialist in the Blacksburg area. There, she applied federal and state risk assessment guidance on projects through legislation like the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Heather’s work focused on assessing soil, water, and sediment in sites contaminated with organic compounds and metals. Heather says, “I enjoyed the work because it allowed me to solve real-world problems, assessing contaminants that cause issues for both environmental and human health.” During this time, she continued to participate in STEM education both as a General Education Diploma (GED) Instructor at Virginia’s New River Community College and an ecology and conservation tutor for Biology majors at Radford University. Heather joined the environmental consulting firm EnSafe, an environmental services firm that provides engineering, environmental, health & safety, and technology services to clients worldwide, in 2013 as a Risk Assessor. However, soon after, she began to “assess” what she envisioned her long-term contribution to the scientific community to be and looked towards Virginia Tech for potential opportunities.

Read more about Heather’s doctoral research featured in a Fralin Life Sciences Institute Spotlight in spring 2017!
Filling in the gaps: a Ph.D. student researches how sediment affects aquatic communities in the NRV and beyond

Seeking to build upon her already impressive resume, Heather first joined the Biological Systems Engineering Department in January 2014 under the co-advisement of GCC affiliates Drs. Leigh-Anne Krometis and Cully Hession. Under their guidance she was able to investigate the influence of human activities on streams through the StREAM Lab at Virginia Tech. The StREAM Lab runs along 1.3 miles of Stroubles Creek adjacent to the campus and is a full-scale stream lab equipped with high-resolution monitoring capabilities for studying hydrologic, ecological, and societal questions related to the restoration of streams and their watersheds. Heather’s dissertation research focused on the impacts of fine sediment on aquatic invertebrate community health and related policy implications for sediment management under the US Clean Water Act. Sediment input into aquatic systems has increased with human population growth, urbanization, and habitat disturbance. According to a 2017 report she published based on data collected through the Clean Water Act, sediment is the second largest stressor to surface waters nation-wide. To address these knowledge gaps, Heather examined the effectiveness of current sediment management approaches in order to design more appropriate remediation plans.

Heather in the field at Stroubles Creek collecting sediment samples for her doctoral research.
Heather leads a session of 'Girls Science! K-5 Summer Camp Comes to Campus' in 2015.
Heather and IGC colleagues celebrate after her successful doctoral defense in 2017.
Heather continues to work with the community in science communication and outreach. She's pictured here with IGC alumni Laura Schoenle Thomas (left) at the Blacksburg SEEDS Nature Center in 2014.

Heather was awarded multiple fellowships during her PhD including the Cunningham Doctoral Scholar Award, the IGC Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP) Fellowship, and the Jean B. Duerr Scholarship. And yet, with all of these commitments, she continued her outreach work. When asked about her favorite memories from her time at Virginia Tech (aside from the research, of course) she said, “The IGC-sponsored trip for students to Washington D.C.; the outreach programs; and the inclusive, interdisciplinary nature of the program in general.” As both a member of the IGC Graduate Student Organization (GSO) and President of the Alpha Epsilon Agricultural Engineering Honors Society, she was able to collaborate with students and faculty from across the university.  After successfully defending her dissertation, “Sediment Management for Aquatic Life Protection under the Clean Water Act” in 2017, she continued her work at EnSafe in nearby Radford, Virginia.

Now, as a Certified Senior Ecologist with over 20 years of consulting experience, Heather continues to work in interdisciplinary teams composed of geologists, chemists, and engineers to determine appropriate remedial actions to protect ecological resources. Through her work, she aims to incorporate advanced approaches to ensure effective, practical, and defensible stewardship of environmental resources throughout Virginia and Appalachia. The aspect of her work that she enjoys the most is, “working with a variety of people from different backgrounds. Every project brings something new with it so each is a learning experience. It’s a collaborative environment similar to that at Virginia Tech.” Heather continues her work as an educator and science communicator outside of work as well, tutoring ESL students and working as a freelance copyeditor. Along with fellow alumnae Drs. Laura Schoenle, Cathy Jachowski, and Gifty Anane-Taabeah, she also recently participated in an IGC career development discussion through the IGC Third Seminar course. She hopes to participate in similar alumni activities in the future and remain active in the Virginia Tech community. True to her initial interest in the natural world, Heather plans to continue instilling a wide appreciation of nature through her work so that future generations will be able to walk the same paths and climb the same rocks that she did as a child.

Mud matters! Heather researched the impacts of "clean sediment" on aquatic life for her dissertation.
GCC Distinguished Lecture speaker meet & greet with Brian Richter in 2017.