Environmental Studies Grad Helps NY Farmers


Environmental studies major Amber Luke ’15 grew up on an old dairy farm in New York State’s Rensselaer County, so she spent a good deal of time outdoors, doing chores and helping out. Her love of working outside continues: she’s a district technician for that county’s Soil and Water Conservation District, where she works in partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Some days, Luke is out surveying for a water line or a stream crossing. “Or, I could be meeting with a farmer to help him or her plan a project that they might want to do. We help to implement many types of projects like laneways, animal trails, covered barnyards, water systems, grazing systems, stream crossings, subsurface drainage, and stream bank stabilization.”

That’s just a small sampling of her responsibilities. In addition, she assesses stream crossings for aquatic connectivity. “We also help give advice to land owners and farmers about soil types, what kinds of seedlings to plant, and where.”

“I absolutely love my job. We are outdoors a lot and it is very hands-on,” Luke said, pointing out that it combines two of her passions, farming and environmental studies. “I am so happy to be helping farmers, to show them that if they change the way they do things, even slightly, they can help protect the environment for the better of their farm and for the future.”

Luke said her experience at MCLA helped her to secure her position.

“Many of the classes that I took gave me the knowledge that allowed me to have a conversation about the projects that soil and water conservation districts do commonly,” she explained.

As part of the environmental studies major, she was required to take “Geographic Information Systems (GIS).” Luke explained, “I use GIS every day at work to make maps for landowners and farmers. Because of MCLA, I have knowledge about soils and streams, which gave me a head start with my job.”

During her junior and senior years, Luke took specialty courses that were of particular interest to her, such as those in aquatic ecology and the nature of New England. “I found that the professors in the Environmental Studies Department were always very helpful and accommodating.”

She also conducted some independent research. After developing a topic and a question, she collected field data and compiled it for an end-of-the-year presentation.

“One of these projects occurred my senior year, when we did research in a vernal pool in the MCLA forest. We looked at what triggers the movement of amphibians to the vernal pool each spring,” Luke explained. “We would go out to the forest each week and take measurements of air temperature and soil temperature, and check minnow nets placed throughout the vernal pool to see how many amphibians were there.”

For her capstone course on “Land Use Changes in New England Agriculture,” she and two other students presented their findings at MCLA’s Annual Undergraduate Research Conference. This work involved going out to look at various farms throughout New England, and compare what they saw with historical photos to determine how the land use had changed over time.

Luke recommends MCLA to students who prefer a small school, where they might build relationships with their professors. “At MCLA, professors are more like friends or mentors than professors,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about them not responding to your emails. My experience at MCLA was great, and I would recommend it to anyone."