Conservation is hard work.
But Angie Spagnoli lives for it. A Penn State Altoona alumna, she's preparing for a return trip to the location that sparked her passion for conservation. She’s happiest in the forest, in wetlands, or ankle-deep in water—when she’s making a positive impact on the world.
Spagnoli graduated from Penn State Altoona in 2018 with a degree in environmental studies and biology. During her time at the college, she participated in several undergraduate research projects, even presenting her findings at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Fair, winning first place each year she participated.
Having grown up with a naturalist father, Spagnoli developed a great appreciation for nature at an early age and always knew she wanted a career in environmental studies. But in 2015, she traveled to Costa Rica and Panama with the Connecting Humans And Nature through Conservation Experiences (CHANCE) program. It was this trip that changed her life.
CHANCE is a Penn State international environmental education program that prepares students to be global-minded citizens who understand the importance of restoring and protecting the biodiversity of Earth’s ecosystems. It also trains them to address challenges such as energy, water, climate change, and protecting species and critical habitats.
Jacqueline Mclaughlin is the founding director of CHANCE and an associate professor of biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley. “Conservation involves knowing how an ecosystem works, how it’s broken, and how to repair it,” she explains. “In field conservation work, we analyze and diagnose the health of an ecosystem’s biodiversity, then fight for its survival. And nearly all ecosystems on this planet are broken right now.”
CHANCE creates unique learning environments through its short-term study abroad international field courses that immerse participants in real-world environmental research and conservation efforts.
In Panama, Spagnoli helped protect sea turtles from poachers along eight miles of beach. She also transported turtle eggs on that shore to a hatchery for safety and to collect data on their population density and health. In La Selva, a section of rainforest in Costa Rica dedicated to conservation and research, she studied the biodiversity of invertebrate communities in plant pools of flowers that grow on other trees, called bromeliads.
“When you take a young person out of their comfort zone and put them in a place where they can truly see first-hand what's going on in the world—really see the amount of waste and pollution—it's life-changing,” says Spagnoli. “You can't unsee that. Traveling with CHANCE was my ‘a-ha’ moment. I realized then that I can use science as a tool for conservation. Ever since, that's been my focus. It just consumes me, and it truly is because of that program.”
The following year, Mclaughlin asked Spagnoli to travel with CHANCE as a field and teaching assistant, an opportunity she seized without question. Now, she’s been asked once again to travel with Mclaughlin and CHANCE in the same capacity, this time to Romania in 2022.
“Angie is hardcore. She has a calling to do conservation work, and she lives and portrays conservation,” states Mclaughlin. “CHANCE isn’t a party ship. It’s challenging work. Angie is devoted to CHANCE, and I trust her to help lead the students.”
CHANCE Romania 2021 will include eight select Penn State students and eight Romanian students. The binational group will study, research, and devise solutions for the present-day water issues confronting the Danube River delta, e.g., microplastics, algal blooms, and nutrient overload from wastewater and fertilizer pollution. They will also work with the Carpathian Conservation Foundation, an esteemed organization dedicated to conserving and restoring the natural Carpathian Mountain ecosystem.
Crediting Mclaughlin with fostering her passion for conservation and providing mentorship, Spagnoli describes being asked to assist with CHANCE, not once but twice, as an incredible honor. “Dr. Mclaughlin chose me because she sees my passion for conservation. That makes me feel like what I'm doing is worthwhile, that I'm helping, and I'm making a difference. That's my goal, to change this world for future generations.”
Inspired by her first trip with CHANCE all those years ago, Spagnoli continues to advocate for and lead wetland restoration and reforestation projects, invasive plant removal initiatives, and local stream and river cleanups—all while working toward her master's in conservation biology and wetlands at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the energy transference between native and non-native plant species to higher trophic levels, including insect and bird predation. She hopes to gain employment as a wetland biologist in the Commonwealth following her December 2021 graduation.
Spagnoli urges all of us to share in the responsibility for conservation by educating ourselves on the importance of biodiversity, habitat loss, pollution, and climate change, then making even small changes to help.
“Take time to give back, even just a few times a year to go plant a tree or something. You will get so much satisfaction out of that. And it will become infectious.”