Tom McKissick V, Environmental Science M.S. Student
By Ryan Schoensee
Meet Tom McKissick V, a first-gen student at UTSA who is currently pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Science. Tom enrolled at UTSA as a transfer student after earning his associate's degree from San Antonio College and found the transfer process to be a smooth and painless transition.
Tom's love for environmental science first took root during adolescence when he would explore the forests and ponds of Supulpa, Oklahoma where he lived. Tom's first fieldwork experience came from a high school class in aquatic science. He had the opportunity to travel to Port Aransas to collect and identify fish for class aquariums. Like the fish he caught to study, he's been hooked ever since.
"There's never a dull moment when you're surrounded by nature," said Tom. "I felt a connection with nature from a young age and would lovingly take the road less traveled."
The road less traveled has taken Tom to some interesting places. He's engaged in field research where he spent a week canoeing 83 river miles along the lower canyons of the Rio Grande, stopping at checkpoints along the way to measure water quality, seine fish populations, net dragonfly nymphs, and collect freshwater mussels.
In summer of 2017, Tom took a desert ecology course at UTSA that involved a 27 day-long excursion across West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. His June was a little bit warmer than he was accustomed to, with some days reaching scorching temperatures of over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. However, he still greatly enjoyed the class because he was able to camp at state and national parks. His coursework included everything from estimating plant populations near Saguaro National Park to quantifying soil respiration via Draeger tube.
Some of Tom's other fieldwork includes gathering quantitative data in Cibolo Creek Nature Center and Preserve, where he mapped out habitats by measuring channel dimensions, which included velocity, substrate, canopy cover, and even the number of logs in a stream. Tom also conducted a vegetation survey in Government Canyon State Park where he utilized field sampling and GIS techniques to analyze urban forest structure, its effect on air quality, and its impact on human health.
Currently, Tom is working on his master's thesis which involves the measured effects of prescribed burn and cattle grazing. He hopes to uncover the best tools that everyday landowners can implement to better manage their land and promote greater biodiversity.
Tom also spends his spare time moonlighting as a "storm chaser." Working as a research assistant in Dr. Brian Laub's lab, he's constantly cognizant of upcoming weather conditions, as he's tasked with monitoring the treatment of rainwater in a newly constructed on-campus bioswale. The bioswale is designed to slowly filter rainwater through native plants and soil mix that is intended to trap pollutants before the water passes through local waterways and into the Edwards Aquifer.
"In a funny way, it makes me feel like Hellen Hunt in the movie Twister, because I get all excited when I see a storm off in the distance," said Tom. "If there is any chance of rain then it's game time because it could mean we'll have some samples to collect."
Tom is also a member of the Tuggle Scholars Program which hosts networking events for students and faculty. The UTSA Tuggle Scholars Program is dedicated to mentoring and training graduate students who aspire to become leaders in environmental science and ecology. The program provides interdisciplinary support for students through a variety of research, writing, and science activities.
Tom's favorite classes at UTSA have been his plant biology courses under Stephanie Gdovin because of how her passion and knowledge for the material is always demonstrated in her lectures. Tom admits that these biology courses have given him a new lens to view the world through.
"I can now look at an abandoned field and see beauty, because I can identify the diversity of plant species growing in the lot," said Tom. "I feel a strong sense of connection to the world around me when I know what tree is about to bloom or fruit. Without these biology courses offered at UTSA, I have no idea what I would be doing today."