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Woman holding a small turtle in the middle of a grassland and forest.

FaithAnn Vanderwalker

Mighty Oak Monday: FaithAnn Vanderwalker

Major: Wildlife Science
Hometown: Middleport, New York
Class of ’23

FaithAnn's parents nurtured her love of the outdoors, planning annual trips to the Adirondacks and hunting near Cranberry Lake.

"I used to joke that I would live in the Adirondacks one day," she said with a smile.

In 2022, FaithAnn's childhood dream became reality through the assistance of the Porter Fellowship. The funding enabled her to live seven weeks in Newcomb and three weeks at Cranberry Lake researching turtles under the supervision of Stacy McNulty, Associate Director of Research at ESF's Newcomb campus. Her mission? Examine the effects of climate change on the nesting behaviors of snapping turtles and study their population in Huntington Forest.

"Climate change is influencing the average temperatures, which could have potentially catastrophic implications over time for snapping turtles," she explained. "This needs to be studied to see what kind of effect it will have on the ecology of the region, as well as potentially other similar regions around the globe."

FaithAnn set about finding nesting sites to capture, measure, mark, and release females. She measured the temperature of their nests and protected the turtle eggs to maintain a meaningful sample size. She patiently waited for hatchlings to emerge so she could retrieve more data that would inform her research study.

Channeling the turtle-catching days of her youth, FaithAnn also captured snapping turtles by hand and net to take measurements and detailed notes. She tagged them before release to allow for a mark-recapture estimate to determine the turtle population, track trends, and make observations.

"I think turtles are so cool. They're all very interesting and have their own personalities," she said.

The Porter Fellowship was established in memory of Emeritus Professor William "Bill" Porter, long-time ESF educator and director of Huntington Wildlife Forest until 2010. It provides annual funding to cover the costs associated with hosting an upper division undergraduate student for a summer experience at Huntington Wildlife Forest, working in tandem with skilled research staff to create a tailored research project.

FaithAnn has an impressive work ethic and innate passion for learning. She started earning college credits through the local community college when she was just a seventh grader. She accumulated enough credits to earn an associate degree before she even earned her high school diploma. ESF's Wildlife Science program grabbed her attention for its curriculum and graduate outcomes. Her head start is helping her earn her bachelor's at ESF in just two and a half years.

With so much coursework under her belt, Vanderwalker realized she was missing field work, which prompted her to apply for the fellowship. Last summer, the budding field biologist had the time of her life.

"The outdoors had a grip on me from a young age and became a passion as I got older," she said. "Last summer was amazing. I lived out a childhood dream. I developed relationships with faculty and students and learned a lot about conservation and wildlife."

A year later, FaithAnn has the proof she’s on a path to success. In April the results of her research earned her a 1st place award at the Northeast Natural History Conference. It also jettisoned her to a summer internship in Yosemite National Park studying Northwestern Pond Turtles, which are under review to be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Learn more about ESF’s Wildlife Science program.