(VIDEO) Her presentation on methods to protect the environment garnered first place in the Graduate School’s annual Three-Minute Thesis competition.
Cassandra Schmitt has long held an affinity for helping whoever is in need, as well as a fascination for the kind of creatures that aren't necessarily familiar to many people in West Texas.
So the notion of studying amphibious and aquatic fish species and how that research can improve the quality of life for mankind has always seemed like a perfect fit.
After graduating from Lubbock Christian University in 2012, Schmitt worked as an advocate for victims of sexual assault and sex trafficking at Voice of Hope in Lubbock. Advocates provide medical accompaniment, assistance with reporting and service referrals for victims and their families.
When Schmitt decided to redirect her professional life, the Lubbock native went hunting for the right place to pursue graduate-level research that still had a positive impact on people and the environment. Schmitt found that ideal match, and didn't have to stray far to do so.
Her research is a blended byproduct of the passion she has for freshwater fish and amphibian life and how the human population can both affect their ecosystems and benefit from the knowledge of how man-made toxins can impact animal life.
"My passion for advocacy extends from human to nature, from the protection of rights for the individual to their surrounding environment," Schmitt said. "I shifted to environmental toxicology to explore the effects of anthropogenic toxins on aquatic ecosystems. Water and the organisms therein are vital to all, and research is equally as vital to innovation for the protection and remediation of our most valuable resource."
Schmitt's work focuses on organic phosphate pesticides and how they affect the behavior in zebrafish, a tropical species belonging to the minnow family (Cyprinidae), commonly kept in aquaria and used for scientific research.
"I would love to do museum or aquarium work after I complete my research, something community-based, that can educate how things like the chemicals we put on our lawns affect all of us by affecting the animals around us," said Schmitt, who is pursuing a master's degree in the Department of Environmental Toxicology in the College of Arts & Sciences.
"I also love working with amphibians and reptiles and would love to teach people why we should be concerned about the chemicals that affect those species, as well as salamanders and fish."
To tackle that kind of research might have required a move to an area more conducive to aquatic life studies – Louisiana, California or Florida.
But Schmitt, a Frenship High School graduate, found the right place a lot closer to home.
"I came to Texas Tech for a lot of reasons, and one of the main ones was because we have the facilities available here to do the research I want to do," she said. "Zebrafish are becoming more common, and we actually have an aquatics lab here that gives me a place to study them. Being from Lubbock and knowing Texas Tech had everything I needed led to an ease in my transition to not have to leave here."
The next transition will arrive in August when Schmitt is on track to graduate. Where her path is headed after that isn't completely clear, but one thing she is sure about is that she wants to become a voice for what she is researching.
While many researchers are content to let their findings speak for themselves in papers, articles or other published venues, Schmitt intends to take a more proactive approach and take the message to the audience.
"One of the things she wants to do is mix it up and talk about what our research is showing us," said Jordan Crago, Schmitt's research mentor and an assistant professor in aquatic toxicology.
"Usually, labs are full of people with their heads down and their headphones on because they want to focus on the science they are researching. She wants to be a communicator, which is a skill unto itself. She wants to communicate the issues that we are focused on, and her natural ability to do so makes it a natural fit."
Which in turn made the Three-Minute Thesis a perfect conduit to test Schmitt's plans.
Schmitt said she knows learning to deliver a concise message to people who may not completely embrace her passion is a skill she needs to master.
"You have to be able to speak to non-scientists, and the best way to do that is to find ways to include what they're interested in – what do they want to know that affects their lives," Schmitt said. "You have to step back and decide what the important aspects of the research are. Because I am so focused on my research, it's all important to me, but I know I am rarely going to have an hour to explain something while sitting in a board room or with groups of people who make major decisions."
So Schmitt saw the Three-Minute Thesis as a real-world litmus test, one that she passed with flying colors.
"Staying on task was a big deal, and you have to learn how to focus and not wander into areas that take you over your three minutes," she said. "This gives you experience speaking in front of people, and in research, you don't have much of a chance to talk about it out loud with different groups of people. It's great preparation because when you defend your thesis, you have to be able to explain your research to people with a different variety of interests where you have to be ready to give quick responses to questions from people outside of your specialty."
Adapting to changing circumstances doesn't seem to be something that would faze Schmitt much. Her career transformation is a signal of that.
Crago lauded his research partner for tackling a career much different than what she originally embarked on, which necessitated a return to school to take on a vigorous academic challenge.
"Cassandra came from a non-traditional background; she was not a biology undergrad," Crago said. "She wanted a change in career, and for her to make that kind of drastic change says a lot about her determination. She was interested in environmental toxicology because she wanted to have a positive impact on people. She has done that as a researcher and will be somebody who is great at communicating the message we need to get out to people."