Vaughn presents on his internship at the Austrian Herpetological Society’s annual conference in January.

Internship leads to presentation opportunity at international conference

Jacob Vaughn's studies lead him to an international conference in Austria

What began as an internship in the little town of Tyrone, PA, ended up propelling Jacob Vaughn to a huge city on the other side of the globe for an experience he could have never imagined.

Vaughn, a senior environmental studies major, began his internship with the Juniata Valley Audubon Society in Tyrone focusing on conservation through science education. As part of that internship, he needed to create a public outreach project, so through the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Centre County, Vaughn began working with reptiles and taking various Pennsylvania native snakes into elementary schools to educate children and help improve attitudes toward them. Vaughn was curious about similar projects in Europe and with the help of Jutta Lorenson, associate professor of English, German, and comparative literature, found out about the Austrian Herpetological Society’s annual conference. After making some connections with conference leaders, Vaughn was invited not only to attend, but also to present his work with Shaver’s Creek. “It was a cool opportunity that presented itself. I’m enthralled with the German/Austrian culture to begin with, so when this came up, I was definitely interested in going. I’ve never really travelled anywhere before,” states Vaughn. A Penn State Altoona Undergraduate Research Conference Travel Grant and a Student Travel Grant in Support of Research and Creative Activity allowed Vaughn to travel.

The conference, held at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, was three days of talk about reptiles and amphibians, especially salamanders. It was a sharing of ideas and research from academics and hobbyists alike from all over the world. “The conference was held in a German/Austrian dialect, and even though I have taken German classes for two years, it was tough to pick up on a lot of stuff. But I was able to get the gist of almost everything. I learned quite a bit about the species that exist in Europe.”

On the second day, Vaughn presented a PowerPoint about his project with Shaver’s Creek that he prepared with Assistant Professor of Biology James Julian, and Assistant Professor of Earth Science, Mark Bonta. “I think it went quite well. I was nervous about giving my presentation to people who have Ph.Ds. in my field and famous herpetologists who were there. It was very nerve-wracking for me because I didn't want to screw up in front of them. But it was an inviting community, and once I got up there and started speaking, it just flowed. From the feedback I received, people seemed very interested in the presentation and what we do here in this part of Pennsylvania.”

In fact, a few attendees told Vaughn they would be interested in having him come back to present again. “I think the real kicker is that the president of the German Herpetological Society and the vice president of the Austrian Society were there, and they both said they were interested in coming to the United States and Pennsylvania and having me take them herping, which is searching for amphibians or reptiles. That would be awesome if that happened!”

Vaughn says it was incredible to meet and interact with such a diverse group and especially neat to talk with people from all over Europe. “At an American conference, you find people who are nice and friendly, but not people who are willing to talk to you for hours on end about what they love and what you love, like Europeans do.” Vaughn met a German man who, as a hobby, breeds geckos, and was at the conference for fun. He introduced himself to Vaughn on the first day noticing he was a bit quiet, then took him under his wing for the entire conference. “This guy actually took us to restaurants after the presentations, paid for our meals, and wants to get everyone from the conference together and go herping in a few years.” Through him, Vaughn became acquainted with another man from Bulgaria who works with venomous snakes. “I made some potential friends at this conference and a lot of people who were fun to talk with.”

On his downtime, Vaughn explored the museum, taking in its vast collection and looking at every specimen, and learning about the history of Vienna. He walked around the city checking out the sites and absorbing the culture and buying souvenirs in the local shops. “The first night, I did get lost in the city,” he chuckles. “I got lost about two blocks from my hotel, because I was looking for landmarks and there are very similar ones on the main street. But after asking a taxi driver for help, I found my way back.”

Vaughn says he hadn’t known anything like this was possible through Penn State Altoona. He never imagined he’d be able to not only travel, but get funding from the University to do so. On top of that, it never crossed his mind that he would be able to present his work at an international conference as an undergraduate. The experience has helped him be more confident in himself and confident in travelling as it’s likely he will need to do more of it for his future career in conservation.

“I’m just kind of still bragging about it right now; ‘look what I did, I went to Austria and talked about my work while I'm a senior in college.’ It's really cool that I did this. I am so thankful to everyone who helped get me there, and I really encourage anyone who has a chance like this to take it. It is so worth it.”

To learn more about internship opportunities, please contact Tom Shaffer, academic internship coordinator, at tls24@psu.edu or 814-949-5789.