College of Ag Sciences senior finds path in environmental academics and action

Jack Ouligian
September 24, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a high school senior heading to Penn State, Elka Hoelsken wanted to pursue a degree in the University's Environmental Resource Management (ERM) program, which promised to feature hands-on learning and a comprehensive look at the environment.

She never thought, however, that she would be graduating with a focus in the major’s soil science option.

“The subject took me by surprise,” said the College of Agricultural Sciences senior. “I had an introductory soil science laboratory on my first-year schedule and thought, ‘I’ve never even heard of soil science.’”

Once Hoelsken began learning more, though, she was fascinated.

“The soil is its own biome, with billions and trillions of organisms living in it,” she said. “Soil keeps our buildings up and restores our water. There were so many subjects to explore, so much information to learn.”

As she continued her academic journey, Hoelsken found that her courses in ERM covered much more than soil science.

“ERM encompasses a lot of environmental issues,” she said. “I’m currently earning a minor in watersheds and water resources and taking classes in wildlife and fisheries science.”

Tammy Shannon, Hoelsken’s academic adviser and professor for her first-year seminar course, reflected on Hoelsken’s time in the program.

“Elka has been an engaged student and critical thinker since she came into the ERM program,” Shannon said. “Her curiosity and willingness to become involved have allowed her to develop valuable knowledge and skills during her time at Penn State, and the ERM program is honored that she’s been a part of the major during her time here.”

At Penn State, Hoelsken became involved with extracurricular environmental opportunities. As an EcoRep in her sophomore and junior years, she educated first-year students about responsible and sustainable consumption.

She also joined the Student Farm at Penn State in the spring of 2021 and now works as a greenhouse manager, a role that is responsible for duties such as watering the plants in the greenhouses daily and managing seedlings throughout winter.

“Working at the student farm has helped me learn more about agricultural practices with soil,” she said. “For example, now I know the amount of compost to mix with soil and why, or how to use less tilling to avoid carbon loss.”

This past summer, Hoelsken worked as an undergraduate researcher with Abigail Owens, a graduate student in soil science. Owens is studying the effect of Penn State’s Living Filter and wastewater practices on local soil. They searched for iron concentrations and depletions in the soil and bedrock that might interrupt the supply of groundwater.

“The main idea behind the Living Filter is that the soil remediates and restores our wastewater to the point where it can reenter the groundwater supply,” Hoelsken said. “The work that we did this summer will help show whether that approach is working or not.”

Their research was overseen by Patrick Drohan, a professor of pedology and the soil science graduate program chair.

“Elka is a hard worker with a very positive personality,” he said. “As a result of her and Abby’s work, Penn State will better understand how the Living Filter is functioning and how soils have changed due to wastewater irrigation.”

The research experience gave Hoelsken more than experience in soil science — it helped her clarify her goals after graduation.

“I probably will go to graduate school, but, before that, I want to focus on water,”' she said. “I’m thinking about jobs in water treatment, or acid mine runoff reclamation, or maybe environmental engineering, so we’ll see.”

Whatever happens, Hoelsken said she is prepared to graduate in the spring.

“Penn State’s given me plenty of knowledge and skills,” she said. “Now, I'm just excited to go out and create real change.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 27, 2021