When Jacob Smith finds himself in deep water with Matt Finkenbinder, associate professor of geology, he’s not in any trouble. It just means the junior environmental engineering major and his advisor are taking some time to connect outside the classroom, sharing their passions for fly fishing, conservation and the northeastern Pennsylvania outdoors.
Smith, from New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, met Finkenbinder at Earth and Environmental Science Day, an event that gives high schoolers a chance to explore campus labs and learn about career opportunities in the geosciences. “He’s been there since the beginning,” says Smith. As a mentor, Finkenbinder’s work with students goes beyond scheduling classes. “I build a rapport with my advisees and get to know them on a personal level,” says Finkenbinder.
When Smith decided to start a new Fly Fishing Club on campus and needed a club advisor, Finkenbinder was a natural choice. With a group of like-minded members, Student Government approval and a donation of rods and reels from an alumnus, the club was in business. “We’re building inventory and opportunity,” says Finkenbinder. “It’s a great chance to provide opportunities for students who might not have equipment and gear.”
In addition to casting their lines, members do community service projects with a focus on trash clean up and preserving the natural beauty of areas like Ricketts Glen State Park and Seven Tubs Nature Center. “It all comes back to conservation,” says Smith. “We all want to do our best to protect what we have for as long as we can.”
Smith’s commitment to conservation, spurred at 14 by a conservation camp run by Trout Unlimited, extends to his academic pursuits. He spent two semesters working with Saritha Karnae, assistant professor of environmental engineering, researching the impact of road salt on algae in streams.
While professors at many schools give their undergraduate students low-level tasks, Smith mixed solutions, timed measurements and recorded results. “The tradition here at Wilkes is different,” says Karnae. “They [the students] get to learn instruments in the field and in the lab. Here, we make them do everything.”
This hands-on experience has already served Smith well. The summer after his first year at Wilkes, he landed an internship with Hanover Engineering in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Now he’s back with the firm, focusing on stream restoration projects and conducting water quality tests and plant surveys. “I get to play outside,” Smith says. “Every day is really different. I couldn’t ask for a better job.”
When he’s not on campus or at work, Smith maintains his conservation connection. He’s a member of Trout Unlimited and a founding board member of Pennsylvania Native Fish Coalition, focusing on protecting wild fish species and their habitats. He also travels with friends, getting off the grid for fly fishing in locations including North Carolina, Montana and Wyoming.
Smith still has two years left on campus, but he’s already started thinking about post-graduation plans. He’d like to turn his summer job with Hanover Engineering into a full-time position before eventually starting his own business dedicated to the design and execution of stream projects. He also wants to center his conservation work here, striving to protect and improve his home state. “I don’t think I’ll ever leave.”
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