Sierra Sico, 21, wants to make a difference in the natural world.

The Unity College senior, who will graduate Saturday with a degree in wildlife biology, is ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.

This summer, she will travel to the University of Montana for a seasonal job studying western songbirds, doing visual and auditory surveys on the prairie, looking at where they are nesting, tracking migration patterns and the number of eggs they produce, and so forth. She also will study how birds are affected by animals grazing on the prairie.

After mid-August, when her job ends, she plans to travel for a year or two.

Unity College senior Sierra Sico smiles at a fellow student award recipient Thursday during the 2019 Senior Awards event at the college in Unity. Sico received the Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement and Leadership in the Ecology and Management Program. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

“My main hope is to do research after grad school,” Sico said. “Now I want to travel around the U.S., get what experience I can in the field with animals, birds in particular. I really like it out West — New Mexico, Colorado. After grad school I’d like to work as a wildlife biologist, doing research.”

With a grade point average of 3.97 — she received all A’s except for one B her freshman year — Sico has won accolades for her work at Unity, including the Award for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in the Ecology Management Program.

She was surprised Thursday to be given the award for academic excellence in her program of study, demonstrating potential for outstanding contributions to the field, leadership within the program, an exceptional work ethic and a high standard of scholarship.

Unity College senior Sierra Sico claps for other student award recipients at the college in Unity on Thursday. Sico received the Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement and Leadership in the Ecology and Management Program. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

On Monday, she received The Unity Award from college President Melik Peter Khoury for two projects she worked on for a full semester, including submitting a senior thesis that best represents the mission of the college. The award, judged by the president’s office, came with a cash prize of $250.

“At this year’s Student Conference, knowing Sierra, I was not at all surprised to see that she had not one, but two incredibly thorough research projects to present,” Khoury said. “Her work on those — one of which focused on habitat use of southern flying squirrels, and the other on lead concentrations in feathers — showed all of us that she has a very bright future ahead of her. As president of Unity College, it is always my proudest moment to preside over graduation, seeing Sierra and her cadre celebrate as they go out into the world for the next chapter of their lives.”

Sico said her thesis included research about where southern flying squirrels spend most of their time and how logging affects their search for food. As part of the project, she used DNA confirmation to make sure the squirrels were southern flying squirrels as opposed to northern flying squirrels.

The Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement and Leadership in the Ecology and Management Program was presented to Sico by her ornithology and mammalogy professor, Jennifer Clarke, who also was her thesis advisor.

“I was honestly pretty touched,” Sico said. “It was almost bittersweet. I’ve been working with her closely since last spring. She’s so passionate about it, it makes you want to learn more. It’s inspiring how passionate she is about what she teaches.”

Sico’s courses of study at Unity included not only ornithology and mammalogy, but also ecosystem ecology, introduction to GIS, or geographic information systems, and biometry and applied statistics among other topics.

Unity College senior Sierra Sico sits on Thursday inside a circle of stones known as “Unity Rocks” on campus at the college in Unity. She is scheduled to graduate Saturday and leave to conduct songbird research in Montana. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

She said she made valuable connections with professors during her time at the college and will have references for life. Her education at Unity, she said, afforded her one-on-one attention from instructors in a comfortable environment where she was encouraged to ask questions and be herself. The experience helped solidify her decision to go into wildlife biology, she said.

A 2015 graduate of Gateway Regional High School in Huntington, Massachusetts, Sico, of Middlefield, Massachusetts, had spent her childhood outdoors with her dog. She said she decided to attend Unity after researching what it offered and learning that one student had an internship in Africa, where he worked with cheetahs.

“I really embraced their mission and love of animals and the environment,” she said. “The education I got here is, I think, exactly what I needed for this field.”

Sico, who loves animals, said she wants to help ensure they are protected.

“I think one of the biggest problems we have is that when research is done, it never gets used to implement management practices. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll get to do research that matters.”

The debate about climate change rages on and everyone must agree that at the heart of the problem are humans, and humans need to be at the heart of the solution, according to Sico.

“Extinction happens at a rate of one to five species a year, and now we’re up to 1,000 to 10,000 times that rate, so it’s definitely human-driven,” she said.

It is with mixed emotions that Sico leaves Unity, the place where she says she grew and thrived.

“It’ll be a lot to leave behind and a lot of people to say good-bye to,” she said. “I’m definitely more excited than anything, but there’s definitely a little pit in my stomach.”

 

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