A photo of a person sitting on a rock leaning over a rock pool with a blue net.
Jennoa Fleming, a senior environmental studies major at VCU, researches the James River rock pools, focusing on a small aquatic snail. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

How I found my research: Jennoa Fleming studies the small wonders of the rock pools to understand our future on Earth

Fleming has been researching the rock pools of the James River since she was a high school student. ‘Ecology is where I truly belong,’ she said. ‘I can’t imagine doing anything else.’

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Jennoa Fleming once thought she wanted to be a doctor. However, the lure of ecology and the macroinvertebrates that fascinate her eventually drew her away from a pre-med path.

She discovered her interest in ecology as a student at Open High School near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in Richmond when she joined a VCU-led research project at the rock pools on Belle Isle alongside the James River. Now a senior at VCU majoring in environmental studies in Life Sciences and minoring in biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Fleming is still studying those same pools – and finding their small, vibrant worlds as compelling as ever.

She spoke to VCU News about her research journey and why she’s grateful for it.

Tell us the focus of your research ... and why it is important/impactful for all of us.

I study James River rock pools, which are holes formed in the granite slabs along the river, creating small mesocosms that allow aquatic plants, macroinvertebrates and other organisms to thrive in pond-like ecosystems. My research focuses on how aquatic macroinvertebrates interact with each other and other factors in these pools. My specific research topic is how the aquatic snail, Physa acuta, is affected by the presence of cigarette butt leachate in its environment.

What inspired you to pursue this line of research?

I’ve always been interested in the environment and animals, all of my favorite childhood shows were about animals, like “Zoboomafoo.” When I was in high school, I was told about a summer science program by my biology teacher. I didn’t know too much about it except that I would be outside a lot and I would get $500, so I was interested. In this program, I worked with different ecologists, specifically James Vonesh, Ph.D., a professor in the Center for Environmental Studies at VCU who studies the rock pools, and students from VCU and the University of Richmond. We took occupancy data of the pools and looked at the different organisms in each pool and pondered what factors could affect them. From this, I developed a research project with two of my peers, and we presented our findings at a conference.

A photo of a person holding a blue net over a rock pool.
Jennoa Fleming understands the importance of studying macroinvertebrates, the foundation of our ecosystem. “We are all interconnected,” she said. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Tell us about a surprise in your research journey.

A surprise in my journey was when I applied to a summer class, Footprints on the JamesIn this class, students travel along the James River for a month studying the organisms within the environment, the history of the river and freshwater sciences. At the info meeting I met James Vonesh again. He recognized me and the work we'd previously done together when I was in high school, which changed the trajectory of my academic career. Prior to this meeting, I was on a pre-med track, but through this, I ended up switching to environmental studies and biology and was able to join Dr. Vonesh’s lab to continue the research I did prior to college.

Tell us about an obstacle or challenge you had to overcome in your work.

I’ve had a rocky background before I started college including the loss of a parent and growing up in poverty, so it can be very hard to figure out what the purpose of me doing research is. It’s easy to convince yourself when you have these experiences to simply go after what will make you rich instead of what your passions are. I started off on the pre-med track and tried to convince myself that I'd be happy doing it, but the subject didn't interest me. During my undergraduate career, I have wrestled with this, but ecology is truly where I belong. It’s so engaging to me, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Is there a memorable partnership or lesson you've embraced along the way?

Other than my mentor James Vonesh, a memorable partnership I’ve made was with Catherine Hulshof, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology. At VCU, I am the president of SEEDS for the 2023-2024 academic year, which is a VCU student club with a mission to promote diversity within the field of ecology. Through this club, I am able to share my experiences in ecology as well as learn so much. Dr. Hulshof studies plant and tropical ecology, as well as how biodiversity is being affected by climate change. Dr. Hulshof has been a consistent support system for me, and I am inspired by her passion for diversity in ecology.

What do you find fulfilling about the research process?

What I most find fulfilling about the research process is just how much information we still don’t know yet. Throughout human history, we have gained so much general knowledge but there is so much we have yet to explore, and this is especially true for the field of ecology. More importantly, with the onset of climate change we are very unsure about how humans will be affected, much less the organisms that reside alongside us. Other species may seem unimportant, such as macroinvertebrates, but they are the foundations of our ecosystem. They are our food sources, our oxygen suppliers, our waste decomposers, and so much more; we are all interconnected. Continuing to research information about our ecosystems will help us in the long run and help us understand what factors affect them as well as us. Knowing that my research could help provide insight into what our future may look like is very fulfilling.

What advice would you offer undergrads to kick-start their own research journeys?

I would recommend undergraduates interact and engage with their professors that study topics that interest them. Many of the professors at VCU are passionate about their subject matter, and they would love to discuss research questions you may have. Whether it’s to welcome you into their lab  or it’s them pointing you in the direction of external resources, your professor likely has many opportunities that fit your interests. Also, I recommend exploring elective courses that interest you. Even though you may not need specific courses to graduate, it’s important to explore your field of study and find what you like. You will likely develop professional relationships with your professors this way and gain more access to research opportunities.

“How I found my research” is an occasional series featuring VCU student-researchers.