A wearing all black woman outside in front of foliage
During her career as a high school teacher, Constance Bolte grew interested in the evolutionary history of forest trees and how climate has and will influence forest structure and diversity. (Contributed photo)

Class of 2022: Constance Bolte studied climate change’s impacts on pine trees

Bolte, who has three degrees from VCU, shifted from a teaching career to earn her doctorate in integrative life sciences and pursue her love of research.

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Constance Bolte’s love of learning brought her back to Virginia Commonwealth University as a graduate student in 2017 and garnered her a two-year postdoctoral position at Penn State.

Bolte has a long history at VCU. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2004 and a master’s in teaching from the School of Education in 2005. She then spent nearly a decade in the classroom teaching biology and environmental studies in high school.

She loved teaching and being in the classroom. She enjoyed working with her students and seeing how amazed they were at science.

But she always had a nagging feeling that she needed to return to school. Bolte watched her students doing hands-on projects and knew she was not done learning.

“I was like, ‘I want to be a student again and grow,’” Bolte said.

In June, Bolte defended her dissertation and earned her Ph.D. from VCU in integrative life sciences from VCU Life Sciences. She chose integrative life sciences because it gave her greater flexibility with her area of study. She could mix biology, ecology and forestry. She moved to Pennsylvania for the postdoctoral work but plans to return to Richmond for the December commencement ceremony.

Bolte studied under Andrew J. Eckert, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology, a leader in the field of forest genetics.

“He has been trained by the best,” Bolte said.

Her dissertation focused on the potential impacts of climate change on pine trees.

“I've always loved spending time in the forest and admiring trees for the seasonal changes they have evolved to endure,” Bolte said. “During my teaching career, I became increasingly curious about the evolutionary history of forest trees and how climate has and will influence forest structure and diversity.”

She is incredibly proud of the work that she did at VCU and appreciates the opportunities that working in Eckert’s lab gave her. She said he has a history of helping his graduate students find work in academia.

Bolte was recruited by Penn State for the postdoctoral position.

“Earning my doctoral degree is more than just reaching an academic milestone,” Bolte said. “It validates for me that passion, drive, flexibility and commitment are key to reaching any goal. My family knows how hard I worked over the last five years, especially through the pandemic.”

Bolte has done some guest lecturing at Penn State, but the focus of the next two years is on research. Still, she assumes that at some point her career will take her back to the head of a classroom.

“(Teaching) is my comfort zone,” Bolte said. “I love just talking about science.”

Bolte said it still feels strange that she can call herself a doctor, but she believes next month’s commencement ceremonies will help crystallize her achievement.

“When I walk across the stage, I feel like that is the moment I realize I’m a doctor,” Bolte said. “I look forward to that feeling.”