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PSU Altoona alum makes global mark in conservation

Angie Spagnoli, a 2018 graduate of Penn State Altoona, researches seedling establishment within the root structures of stilt-root palm trees at the La Selva Biological Research Station, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica. Courtesy photo

Angie Spagnoli is beginning to take the reins in Penn State’s CHANCE program — Connecting Humans And Nature through Conservation Experiences.

A 2018 graduate of Penn State Altoona, Spagnoli has made the environmental education program her passion, starting off as a participant and working her way up to a field and teaching assistant.

The Altoona native first got involved with the program in 2015 when she traveled to Costa Rica and Panama. There, she and the group she traveled with studied sea turtles, protecting the creatures from poachers, and reforested a banana plantation.

In 2016, she went on the same trip as a field and teaching assistant.

Now, she’s set to continue her leadership in the group’s 2022 study abroad trip to Romania, where students from Penn State and a Romanian institution will research water issues in the country’s Danube River, one of the longest rivers in the world.

Angie Spagnoli, a 2018 graduate of Penn State Altoona, plants a medicinal garden for the indigenous community at Las Tortugas Station in Barra de Pacuare, Costa Rica. Courtesy photo

According to an article from The University Dunarea de Jos, the Danube River is plagued by multiple forms of pollution, something Spagnoli and her team hope to combat.

“You have microplastics and chemical pollution and warming of the water — all of that affects the aquatic life in the river and the health of the people who live around it,” Spagnoli said.

“We will be taking water samples, studying the health of the river and, hopefully, educating the locals about why it’s important not to pollute the river, why it needs to be protected and why the surrounding trees need to be there,” she said. “A lot of people are not educated when it comes to conservation. To us, it seems like common sense, but a lot of people just aren’t educated.”

Conservation has always played a part in Spagnoli’s life.

“I basically grew up in the woods,” she said. “My dad and I went camping every weekend and he would take me hiking. He taught me how to identify trees and plants and how to track animals, so I grew up with conservation.”

Her father emphasized one takeaway in particular, Spagnoli said.

“It’s not so much about one species or one plant or one stream, it’s about the big picture,” she said. “It’s about how everything interacts in nature and everything is intertwined. If you take one piece of the puzzle away, everything else starts to collapse.”

When she got to Penn State Altoona, Spagnoli immediately found her place in the environmental studies program.

“I always knew that was the route I was going to take, but I had to figure it out and I had to get there,” she said.

Spagnoli presented her various research projects at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Fair three years in a row at Penn State Altoona, finishing in first place each time.

Dr. Jacqueline McLaughlin, founding director of CHANCE and an associate professor of biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley, has seen Spagnoli’s passion for conservation firsthand.

“Angie is a conservationist by training and by heart and because of that, she emulates everything a conservationist should be,” McLaughlin said. “She’s a role model and that’s why I choose to have her in the field. She’s experienced a lot and evolved into a scholar.”

McLaughlin said Spagnoli is a proven leader whose background in and passion for conservation are unparalleled.

“Angie is a passionate person and she finds beauty in nature, and that’s the power of all of this, that nature is the essence of all life and Angie emulates that,” McLaughlin said. “She’s extremely experienced and she understands how to work in academia and with students, she understands research and it’s the way that she can work with the group and bring people together.”

While conservation work isn’t easy work, Spagnoli was made for it, McLaughlin said.

“Conservation is the hardest work that I believe one can do — it’s one of the hardest jobs we do as biologists, and she is, by far, one of the hardest-working conservationists.”

Spagnoli’s conservation efforts go beyond CHANCE, as she participates in local stream cleanups and works on other projects. It’s a lot of work, she said, but it’s worth it.

“It’s not easy,” Spagnoli said. “It’s hard; that is the essence of conservation. You’re making such an important sacrifice and it’s so fulfilling.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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