Emily Virgin, College of Science PDRF

Emily Virgin has been interested in reptiles since she was a child. Her father would save frogs, salamanders and toads in a bucket for her when she was young. This love brought her to become a Biology student at USU.  

She graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BA in Science, where she studied snakes. She was also able to study birds through an internship at Indiana University, where she was introduced to USU and Dr. French’s research lab.   

At Utah State, Emily studies the physiology of the reptiles native to Utah in Dr. French’s lab. She focuses on how stress from urbanization affects their offspring and personal traits such as reproduction, survival, physiology, and maternal effects.   

“I actually really wanted to be a vet when I was younger and then I realized there were other things that I could do that involved working with animals,” she said. “I never liked the surgery aspect of being a vet, so I really like what I’m doing.” 

This research has allowed her to travel around Utah. She has spent time wrangling lizards in St. George to bring back to the lab and study before releasing them again in their natural habitat. These trips have helped her study how urbanization affects lizards’ stress, immune systems, reproduction, and life history characteristics.  

Emily spends her summers doing field work. The team wakes up at dawn, catches lizards, takes measurements, and then releases them back into their environments. She feels very fortunate that she doesn’t get bored because even her lab work varies from day to day.  

One of the results that the lab has found doing research in St. George is that the lizards living in rural sites live longer than the lizards in urban sites. They have also been able to compare the data they’ve gathered in St. George to research in Oregon to study differences between lizard populations. 

By studying lizards, she hopes to discover how urbanization affects the stress level of other populations of species in the same areas. When animals are stressed, it changes how they react to different functions, such as reproduction. She feels that her work is important for conservation of the natural world.

Graduate school has taught Emily how to create her own schedule and goals. She says that being a PhD student is what you make of it. It is not like an undergraduate degree, where students have to meet a certain expectation. She has had to make her own plan to be successful. 

Right now Emily plans on continuing to research in her field. She may want to go into academia and mentor master’s students, but would also enjoy working at a research station.  

She has enjoyed being in Utah for the opportunity to visit national parks, hike and camp. These experiences are different from the outdoors of the East coast, where she is grew up. She also loves to read and watch superhero movies.


Writer: Bentlee Rice | Office of Research and Graduate Studies | bentlee.rice@usu.edu