Planting seeds of positive change: EEGS senior shares experience with saying yes and finding balance

WATCH AND LEARN — Mary Kelly presents her research on the Presque Isle wetlands using LIDAR data at the Society of Wetland Scientists conference in Washington. Photo Courtesy of Mary Kelly
WATCH AND LEARN — Mary Kelly presents her research on the Presque Isle wetlands using LIDAR data at the Society of Wetland Scientists conference in Washington. Photo Courtesy of Mary Kelly

Senior Mary Kelly has always had a strong compassion that has influenced her relationship with the world. When she was in elementary school, she had dreams of becoming a physical therapist or a doctor so she could help people. 

“I had a thing for a while where I wanted to go into the medical field and do more people related stuff,” Kelly said. “My desire to do good stuff for other people, that compassionate side of me, that leans more towards compassion for the planet at this point, but that feeling has always stuck with me and informed my early dream to be a physical therapist.”

Kelly’s love for the planet led her to pursue a degree in environmental science and French at NMU. Despite her freshman year being majorly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly maintained an attitude of “saying yes” and doing her best to get involved on campus. 

“My attitude going into college was to ‘just say yes,’” Kelly said. “Not just like ‘yes’ to different research opportunities and projects and things, but also if my friends want to hang out … just this sort of overall ‘yes’ to getting involved and meeting as many people as possible and contributing in small but meaningful ways when I can.”

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In fall of 2022, Kelly said ‘yes’ to watching a remote wetland survey at Presque Isle with a friend and two NMU professors. Kelly’s presence was not expected to become anything more than a cool undergraduate experience, but Kelly stepped up to help program the drone and learn more about the light detection and ranging (LIDAR) scan that the drone was completing. 

Kelly’s involvement prompted EEGS Professor Matt Van Grinsven to offer her assistance in data processing if she wanted to delve deeper into the LIDAR scanning data that was being collected on the Presque Isle wetlands. 

A few weeks later, Kelly sent him an email and opened up a whole new world of digital data analysis and graphing. She worked with Professor Adam Naito and Van Grinsven to obtain the LIDAR data from Presque Isle, but then her own learning and curiosity motivated her to dive deeper into the numbers. 

Despite never working with LIDAR data before, Kelly taught herself how to create a digital elevation model (DEM) and a topographic wetness index (TWI) using educational videos and some guidance from her mentors. 

“I watched a video and I followed the steps and I made this wetness index for the wetland,” Kelly said. “I mean, we already kind of know that the wetland is wet, but it was a good beginner project to get an idea of how to work with LIDAR data and how to make a TWI, even though it is not the most significant or exciting model that you can make.”

After her maps were created, she was invited to present at the Society of Wetland Scientists conference in Spokane, Washington that summer. 

“It was kind of this full circle moment. I went to go watch the drone survey and I had no intention of doing any of this other stuff, and then this other stuff just happened,” Kelly said. “I went from watching the thing to presenting it at a national conference with funding, which was exciting but also very unexpected.”

Kelly has fallen into many of her other research and education opportunities due to her love of learning. Once she starts a project, she wants to discover as much as possible about it and see it through.

“I really enjoy learning new stuff,” Kelly said. “Once I start something, I really want to … see it get to a certain point where I feel like I’ve made my contribution.”

Randy Swaty, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy’s LANDFIRE team and one of Kelly’s mutual mentors, has been impressed with Kelly’s ability to dive into a problem and learn new skills, especially considering many of the skills Kelly has been exploring are coding and mapping programs. 

“[Learning] might be one of her superpowers. She’s very good at learning,” Swaty said. “It’s almost like magic. It’s so graceful, I don’t really feel it or notice it. It just happens … it’s a superpower for sure. She’s got multiple superpowers, but that’s definitely one of them.”

Kelly’s quest for knowledge has led her to present four poster presentations and two oral conference presentations. She has also said ‘yes‘ to many other involvements on campus, including the Student Leader Fellowship Program, volunteering at the NMU Food Pantry, and being president of the Gamma Theta Upsilon, an international geographical honor society. 

“At the beginning of junior year, I realized I had taken on too much stuff,” Kelly said. “There were a couple straight weeks of just stress, and I would stand in my dorm room with my lights off at night silently crying and swaying back and forth … my grades are fine, school is fine, but I’ve taken on too much outside of that and I need to cut back.”

After Kelly realized that she had maybe said ‘yes’ to a few too many things, she started stepping back from some of her commitments and prioritized her physical and mental health. While saying ‘no’ to a few things was challenging for her, it also helped her focus on the projects in her life that were most rewarding. 

“The overall trend has been continuing to say ‘yes,’ but also being aware and cognizant of my schedule, and how I’m feeling, and if I’m still able to give 100%,” Kelly said. “That has been really valuable and probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned in college is that boundary setting.”

Being a co-leader at the NMU Hoop House was one of the commitments that Kelly has found it easiest to say ‘yes’ to, as it has been an enriching and supportive experience throughout her time at NMU.

“A lot of my work has been really service oriented and service through environmental initiatives. I’m incredibly proud of Hoop House stuff. It’s not an easy task to mobilize 15 to 20 people a week to go outside, even when it is cold and raining sideways, to go weed,” Kelly said. “I’m incredibly humbled and proud of what I’ve done. It’s definitely exciting to not just see my growth, but also see the ways in which my actions have impacted other people around me.”

Kelly didn’t anticipate having all of these experiences when she first started college. She didn’t think she would be helping plan Earth Week or teaching other students how to harvest potatoes or tutoring others in French. She just knew that she wanted to make a positive difference for both people and the planet.

“I hope that I’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs, that people can learn from and carry on different projects and continue this momentum that I’ve started,” Kelly said. “I just want to plant seeds of positive change.”

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