EPA fellowship brings CSES student to Tech
By Susan Trulove
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 11 - November 6, 1997
How did Christophe Lawrence of New York City, holder of a bachelor-of-arts degree in history from Yale, end up as a graduate student in crop and soil environmental sciences at Virginia Tech and the recipient of one of only 100 EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowships for Graduate Environmental Study?
Basically, he realized he was meant to have dirt under his fingernails.
Upon earning his BA in 1991, Lawrence volunteered to work with a wildlife biologist in Idaho. For six months he built water holes, did other wildlife-management chores, and learned what land-management agencies do. Then he volunteered with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. Finally, he went to work for Booz, Allen, and Hamilton of Arlington, a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was his job to learn and then explain hazardous-waste legislation, responding to calls from the public to a general-information number. His employer had discovered that people who were used to reading and understanding complex information, such as a history major would be, did well in the position.
After three years of explaining regulations, he decided he needed a science background to succeed in the environmental arena. And he realized he wanted to return to a pastime that gave him pleasure as a child. "I had spent a lot of time on a farm, and I wanted to get back to it."
Lawrence is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Switzerland. More relevant is the city-country schism of his life through his early years in college. He was born in New York City and spent the majority of his time in Manhattan, but he spent most of his summers--and two full years starting when he was nine--on his grandparents' farm in the small town of Bournens, in the western, French-speaking region of Switzerland.
"So I was a New Yorker who milked cows and drove a tractor," Lawrence recalled. "I grew up playing basketball on the street but I loved the farm."
However, he didn't think about agriculture as a career. A high-school history teacher at the Collegiate School in New York City encouraged his interest in that subject.
"Languages were easy--I spoke French--and history was the most fun. I always had good grades and no one ever questioned that I knew what I wanted," he said. "I thought I was going to be a history professor, but after four years of study, I realized I'd had enough of that. The time wasn't wasted, but I wish I'd come to a program like Virginia Tech's sooner."
When he decided to pursue his long-ago interest in agriculture, "Virginia Tech was the clear and unmistakable choice," Lawrence said. "The environmental focus of the crop and soil environmental sciences (CSES) program is perfect."
He came to the university as an undergraduate student in January 1996, and took 56 credits in sciences and soils in one year (30 credits--or 15 per semester--would have been considered a heavy load). He decided upon a focus on soil chemistry because, "I am really interested in agriculture above all and I am interested in environmental issues. Soil is the medium in which those interests come together. I want to reconcile agriculture and the environment; better soil management is the key. Also, I am interested in chemistry and soil science brings together a lot of sciences, particularly chemistry."
It was clear to the CSES faculty that Lawrence was graduate-student material. "(Mark) Alley and (Jim) McKenna as my advocates, (Jack) Hall as department head, and (Lucian) Zelazny as my advisory--they believed in me and funded me as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, provided me with a great education, and got me to this point"--the point where he could apply for and succeed in receiving a prestigious national fellowship, he said. Lawrence was looking at National Science Foundation fellowships and Alley encouraged him to apply for the EPA STAR Fellowships.
"You can find fellowships on the Internet," Lawrence said. "More students--particularly students in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences--should apply."
The STAR fellowship provides up to $34,000 per year of support for study leading to a master's or doctoral degree in an environmentally related field. Master's students may be supported for two years, and doctoral students for three years. (The deadline for the next awards is November 14. Check: http://es.inel.gov/ncerqa/rfa/fellowrfa.html).
Lawrence's goals are to "keep one foot on the farm--maybe teach and work with farmers in an Extension capacity.
"I don't see myself as an `environmentalist.' In my heart, I want to farm. My opportunities lie with working with farmers. Hopefully, I'm a little unique--working on agriculture from the inside. It's why I wanted to come to CSES at Virginia Tech."
Meanwhile, he remains close to the soil by gardening. He lives in an old farmhouse. This year, he's lost 60 heads of lettuce to deer and all of his cantaloupes were eaten by groundhogs.