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Class of 2020: Environmental Sciences’ Award-Winning Graduate Sam Mogen

May 14, 2020 |
The Class of 2020’s Sam Mogen will graduate with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences and a B.A. in Global Sustainability

Sam Mogen is graduating from the University of Virginia as this year’s recipient of the Wallace-Poole Prize, the highest honor given to an undergraduate majoring in environmental sciences. However, the single most important experience of Mogen’s four on Grounds wasn’t in a lab; for the Echols Scholar and College Science Scholar from Radford, Virginia, it was in an English class.

Like many undergraduates, Mogen had a change of heart about his direction in life.

“I had a really long term interest in public health. I really wanted to be an epidemiologist,” Mogen said about his first-year ambitions, “but I took a few classes related to public health and realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Growing up in a family that liked to take road trips to the national parks, Mogen also had an interest in the environment. After taking a classes in the Environmental Sciences Department and volunteering for clubs involved in sustainability at UVA, he began to find a new path for himself. But environmental science is a broad field that can lead to careers in a broad range of fields from science to public policy.

“When I was trying to pick my life direction, I was looking at a lot of different issues where I thought there was a lot of work to be done,” Mogen said. But at first, he said, “My goal was just to explore and figure out what I was interested in.”

For much of his time at UVA, Mogen worked for the University’s Office of Sustainability making students aware of their own impact on the environment and encouraging them to make more environmentally conscious decisions and to get involved in the University’s decision-making processes. The experience gave him a closer look at the challenge of translating science into positive action.

Mogen also spent several years working with James N. Galloway, UVA’s Sidman P. Poole Professor of Environmental Sciences, as part of the University’s Nitrogen Working Group, a research team sponsored by the Office of Sustainability working to calculate the University’s nitrogen emissions.

“UVA is doing a tremendous job reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and our environmental impact, which is something that I don’t think a lot of people really recognize,” Mogen said. “It’s something I didn’t realize, but UVA is pretty ahead of the game in terms of universities, and we have some pretty ambitious goals for reducing our environmental impacts.”

Outside of the lab, Mogen is passionate about reading, and that passion led him to take a class offered by the English Department’s called “Plants and Empire,” a course Mogen said is the most influential one he’s taken and the one that’s had the biggest impact on his thinking as a scientist. The course focuses on the history of imperialism and how scientific knowledge has been used further political and cultural agendas.

“I think it’s really relevant now to continue thinking about how science is not necessarily purely an objective thing; everything is mediated by the people who do the research, and everything is mediated by the people who write about it,” Mogen said. “[The course] has definitely changed the way I think about science. It’s important to understand how we do science in a way that’s not exploitative and that the impact has been thought through.”

With his experiences in and out of the classroom and a richer understanding of a scientist’s role in Society, Mogen discovered an interest in the physical science of climate change and an interest in making the important connection between research science and the people who are meant to benefit from it.

That led him to a summer internship with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle. There, he worked on a project modeling changes to oceans under various climate change scenarios.

“Climate change is happening, the earth is heating up, and this is going to do a lot of different things to the oceans that aren’t fully understood,” Mogen said. “The chemistry of the ocean determines what fish can live where and how the ocean system works, so it has a lot of effects on communities.

He continued to explore the subject through a Distinguished Major Program thesis, working with Scott Doney, a research scientist and UVA’s Joe D. and Helen J. Kington Professor in Environmental Change, to model changes in oxygen levels in the Bering Sea. The project gave Mogen an opportunity to see how changes in the oceanic oxygen levels is impacting the fish population in the Bering Sea and how that’s affecting an Alaskan economy that depends on fishing for its livelihood.

“I am very impressed with Sam’s work that required him to analyze, visualize and interpret a large volume of ocean and develop a strong new knowledge base in oceanography and marine biogeochemistry beyond the scope of our standard environmental sciences curriculum,” Doney said. “The summer internship with NOAA in Seattle and his DMP research demonstrated Sam’s ability to formulate and complete a well-targeted research project that prepares him well for graduate school and was likely a reason why he was accepted into multiple graduate programs in ocean science.”

Mogen graduates as a member of the Class of 2020 with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences and a B.A. in Global Sustainability, an interdisciplinary program that allowed him to make important connections between his interests in the environment and sustainability. The program enabled him to study both the science and the impact of the science on people.

In the fall, Mogen will begin a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he’ll focus on modeling ocean climate change and modeling the chemistry of the oceans as the earth continues to grow warmer. After that, his goal is to continue that work in the public sector.

Mogen learned that he had won the 2020 Wallace-Poole Prize just a few weeks before this weekend’s virtual Final Exercises.

According to Howie Epstein, a professor of environmental sciences and chair of the department who has worked closely with Mogen, “Sam is clearly a very bright student with strong quantitative skills, but he is also always up for a challenge to strengthen and broaden his base of knowledge.”

For many students, the key to a successful undergraduate career is having the opportunity to transform their interests into a career and a purpose. For Mogen, some of the credit goes to the Global Sustainability Program that helped him put all of the pieces together.

“People have always denied climate change, but I think we’re getting to the point where it’s impossible to keep doing that, and there is going to be a need for a lot of scientists working on the issue from a lot of different angles. Cities need to adapt, and there’s going to be a lot of work to do,” Mogen said.