Dr. Jennifer Sweatman
Assistant Professor of Biology; Environmental and Sustainability Studies

Was teaching at a collegiate level always your goal?

When I was a freshman in college, all I wanted to do was be outside and save the whales (which held true for a long time). Teaching wasn’t something originally on my radar. I was a TA for a lab while in undergrad, but I didn’t have much autonomy so it didn’t give me a feel for what teaching could be like. After undergrad, I was a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in the Republic of Kiribati and I taught English as a second language to elementary-aged students. It was fun but also a completely different experience than teaching college students in the United States. So it wasn’t until graduate school, specifically while in my Ph.D. program, that I began seeing teaching as a career path for me.

Please tell us about your work and how long you’ve been teaching at Concordia.

I’m a sustainability scientist and have been at Concordia for five years. My position is unique in that it’s interdisciplinary. I’m housed in biology, but I teach in both biology and the environmental and sustainability studies program. It’s split about 50/50.

My research focuses on the impacts that humans have on the environment, so I’m less on the green energy or infrastructure side of sustainability and more on the natural science side of sustainability. Specifically, I study the impacts of how humans modify the environment, change the ways that we use our lands, or through our different conservation methods.

I’m kind of in a unique spot where I’m shifting my career focus. My entire undergraduate and graduate research experiences have all been in coastal marine environments, but I’m now looking at how pervasive microplastics are in the animals in the region. This project began in fall 2020 with a research seminar in the biology department. We quantified the number of microplastics that were present in the digestive tracts of small mammal species and waterfowl. An exciting part of the project is that it is a citizen science project. Duck organs are donated to us by hunters. It’s a cool collaboration with people who are contributing directly to conservation. Hunters often get a bad rep but, more often than not, they’re the people who care the most about conservation.

What is your favorite course to teach and why?

I teach the bookends of the environmental studies program – the introductory course and then the capstone course for graduating seniors. Both have really cool qualities. 

I enjoy teaching the entry-level course because it caters to non-majors, and oftentimes non-majors have yet to critically think about why the environment is important to all of us or the broader impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. It’s fun to teach a group that is being introduced to many of these concepts for the first time.

I also love ENVR 475, which is the senior capstone for the environmental and sustainability studies program. The goal of the course is for environmental studies students to work with an interdisciplinary team of peers on a student-led research project. It’s fun to see what they choose and the direction they take their project. I think it says a lot about the students, their passions, and the education they’ve received while at Concordia in making them more interdisciplinary thinkers – they see the big picture from many different lenses. This class and the project are opportunities for students to showcase that knowledge, use what they have learned in all their classes and, in some cases, leave their impact on campus through their projects.

Why did you choose this field and who has had the greatest influence on your education and/or career path?

I was lucky to have great mentors as an undergraduate student. In terms of my education, they were important in helping me to get into a graduate program and helping me realize that pursuing more school was a path I wanted to take. With regard to my career, I must credit Bryan Dewsbury. He was a member of my lab when I was a Ph.D. student at Florida International University in Miami and the first person I talked to about going into teaching. For a very long time, my focus was research, but I eventually realized that I wasn’t as passionate about it as I was for teaching. He introduced me to teaching training programs at the university and we had many conversations about teaching as a career – conversations that I had not been able to have with my advisor. He is pivotal in where I am today.

What is your favorite aspect of Concordia?

I love the small class sizes. It gives me the opportunity to get to know my students and have real conversations and meaningful interactions with them. Even in a non-majors class when students are required to take the course, I can still get to know them and they won’t be lost in a sea of faces. 

How does Concordia differ from other places you’ve worked?

Concordia is different with regard to its small size and focus on interdisciplinary studies. The emphasis on being a well-rounded student, instead of only getting the prerequisites needed for a specific program, is something that Concordia professors get the opportunity to emphasize. 

How has the pandemic impacted your teaching?

The pandemic forced me to evaluate how I engage with students and to learn different ways of engaging with them online. It’s a lot easier in person because you can walk over to them and have a conversation, but you can’t do that with an online course. It’s been a challenge. I think I’ve done well in some areas and could use some improvement in others in terms of engaging students.

Additionally, for a long time, I had intended to put my introductory to environmental science course online for summer school, which previously was something I never had the chance to do. With the pandemic, I didn’t have a choice.

What is the most helpful advice you have received? 

There are no more “supposed to’s.” As I was leaving undergrad and had interviews for graduate schools, one of the professors I interviewed with asked me why I was interested in grad school and I answered (in brief), “Because I am supposed to.” She told me that there are no more “supposed to’s,” which is a statement that has stuck with me for a long time. I didn’t get into graduate school that year and I think about that often. When things don’t go seemingly how they’re “supposed to,” I remind myself that things often will take their own path. Our failures often play a pivotal role in our development and get us to where we need to be. While it may seem like your world is falling apart when you don’t get that job or get into graduate school, it’s these experiences that will end up shaping us into who we are meant to be.

What is something that students would be surprised to learn about you?

I did not get into grad school my first time applying and ended up going into the Peace Corps in the Republic of Kiribati for two years.

Published October 2021