Fieldwork Blues

Hello everyone, its the Middle of Field Season and if you’re anything like me, you might be feeling like you haven’t accomplished as much as you wanted from a field trip or season. I definitely feel that way a lot; but it’s important not to be too hard on ourselves for not getting that /one/ extra species sample or soil core. Fieldwork is a marathon more than it is a sprint–if you burn yourself out after a week or two in the field, it doesn’t help you or your thesis.

Here’s a couple of things that I do to help me remember what I’ve accomplished in the field, and to accomplish more things in the field to combat the fieldwork blues.

  1. I make a calendar of the whole field season, with alternative dates.
    • What do I mean by this? I print out a calendar and write in desired dates to begin and end projects in one color ( I love blue). Then I check the forecast for my field site for the nearest trip date, and write a bad-weather version in another color. This way, I have two tracks which will keep me out in the field in a timely manner, but the alternate schedule helps me feel like I am on track without the work piling up towards the end of the season. This way, if I miss a day or two in the field because of weather, that work is not “lost”; I just accomplish it the next trip. For example, this past weekend I was supposed to collect all the plant species in Sonora. The rain kept me inside, so I have a little over half the species. This is okay because the next stage of my experiments (collecting litter for litter-bags and setting out litter fall traps) can be completed either the week of the 16th or the week of the 25th without delaying the rest of my project. Since I need to finish species collection, I can do that the 16th while retrieving litter, leaving the week of the 25th
  2. Plan out your breaks while in the field so you don’t exhaust yourself before finishing the day’s task.
    • If you do field work in a remote area or in extreme heat indexes, its really important to give your body time to rest between physical tasks. Even if you aren’t getting swole from your fieldwork, all bodies need rest at some point. If you try to plow through a field day with no rest, you will absolutely get sick and burn out. Trust me, because I’ve completely gone out into the field with a kidney infection, and I ended up losing a whole week of work from getting so sick that I ended up bedridden. Instead, plan out at least two breaks in the day where you can re-hydrate and carb up. I take a 45 minute lunch during the hottest part of the day to cool my body off; this break is longer because my body wouldn’t accomplish much fieldwork during peak heat anyways, so I am ensuring that I have then energy to be more productive once the worst heat passes. I also plan a break either mid-morning (if i start early) or mid-afternoon for at least 15 to stay out of direct sunlight and carb up a little. While its tasty (and cheap) to pack fast carbs like cookies, I try to carb up with healthier options like apples, bananas, or plums; same sugar, but with fiber and nutrients to keep you from having a sugar crash.
  3. At the end of each day, write down all the samples you’ve collected and other tasks you’ve completed.
    • Not only is this a good way to make inventory of your samples, but it’s a nice psychological reminder of all the work you have completed. As scientists, there is always more work to be done–however, it’s still important to celebrate the successes of the day! This will also help you keep your schedule calendar up to date, if you can directly inventory what has been done versus what still needs to be done.

These are the three big things that I do to keep myself from getting the field work blues. Your mileage may vary, but having these three central steps has always helped me recenter myself and my work.

Thank you for reading, and see you on the other side.

~itati

 

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A month in the lab

Hello all,

It’s been a hectic month in the lab, and if you’ve been following me on Twitter then you know my move to Texas A&M was less than smooth. But, it’s been a month since I officially started work here in the SIBS Lab under Dr. West; and I think it would be a good time to reflect on what I’ve done since I began here.

For the uninitiated, I am a both a Graduate Diveristy and Strategic Initiative Graduate Fellow at Texas A&M in College Station, TX. I work in a lab which blends biodiversity, stable isotope, ecophysiology, and ecology all under one roof. This summer, I’ve been blessed to come start my PhD early and learn the techniques that I will be using from older graduate student Rachel Adams (she’s super cool), as well as being able to set the groundwork for my project.

This month, I’ve learned a lot of actual lab techniques: how to set up and use a vacuum water extraction line, how to manually extract water using the centrifuge, how to analyze soil texture via hydrometer, and how to in general pack and work samples in the various elemental analyzers in the lab. I think it was actually pretty helpful that my fieldwork was delayed this summer, because sitting back in the lab and seeing how Rachel worked her projects helped me visualize how I want mine to look (and why).

So far, I’m pretty sure that my thesis will look at the effect of grazing and fire on the belowground carbon cycling and storage of the savannaland in Sonora, TX. Perhaps I am thinking too big here (feel free to roast me in the comments if so) but what I am thinking so far is:

  • Characterization of a ‘baseline’ carbon cycle within the savanna; so a litterbag decomposicion study, some soil carbon flux measurements, and EA analyses of the carbon stored in the soils and plants. The weather stations and the eventual eddy flux tower will also give me ambiental data that should help me figure out what carbon is doing in this ecosystem.
  • Vegetation characterization of the savanna: who lives where, who is storing carbon, and how plants are reacting throughout the season in terms of carbon flow and storage. There’s also the question of the two geologic formations within Sonora, with some trres prefering one of the formations to the other and whether this yields a noticeable (and reliable) pattern of carbon flux throughout the ranch. There’s also a possible genetics protocol, which I get to start working on this week.
  • The actual experiement of the savanna project, which will involve three other ranches (maybe?) and goats. There will be unbothered plots, plots with grazers, plots with fire, and plots with both. Hopefully this will yield its own (or multiple) chapters, especially if fire drastically changes how the soil is storing carbon.
  • big maybe: if the change in soil carbon (stores or fluxes) creates a signal that the flux tower/soil respiration assays can catch, through time after the burnings/grazings.

I’m sure this will all change–my first field day to collect materials is on Thursday–but I hope I am at least on the right track. The most difficult part for me of starting out is getting to the habit of reading papers. But I have to keep reading, and writing, and thinking. I have to say that I am really positive (for once) about this, and about the PhD process as a whole. I have a lot of things going well for me at the moment, and while #phdlife is lonely at times, my research currently feels like she could be my one true love.

Thanks for reading, and catch y’all on the other side of the carbon cycle.

how to survive a toxic place:a guide

It’s about That Time where undergrads and others are sent off into the great void of Summer Internships. People have probably congratulated you, told you how great its going to be, how much fun you’ll have, etc. You’re probably PUMPED to start doing new research at a new place, with new people. Nothing matches the unfettered excitement of a New Thing. But, sometimes things don’t work out that way. I’m here to let you know that it’s absolutely okay to feel disillusioned about a place, its people, or the research you (thought) you wanted to do.

REU’s and summer technicianships are hard for a lot of reasons. Usually, you’re completely uprooting yourself–either from your actual home or from your home institution–without the time or headspace to actually think about what that means. PI’s usually have no problems corralling you in a lab or office and working you, without thinking about the fact your usual support system is not there with you. There are a few ways around this, especially if you don’t have the option of leaving an REU:

  • I stayed in brief contact with my home institution advisor at least once per month of my REUs. It was always fleeting, but refreshing to know that the people I depended on did not abandon me simply because a new person was advising me.
  • Build a community with the people you live and stay with. It can be hard to start, but the people you live with can become your allies. My roommates at all three REU’s are still my friends, and their support in times of crisis during my internships is what helped me get through them. Even if it’s just a weekly check-in dinner or movie night, build those bonds. They’ll uplift you when you need them.
  • Be friends with people outside your cohort as well as within. I once went to an REU that told us explicitly to never talk to any townies or grad students on our campus–for reasons too gross to repeat here. But I am really glad I didn’t take that advice, bc the graduate students I met were actually helpful: both for navigating ussues within my own research, and for figuring out my career path. Having that sense of grounding and purpose, can help you feel stable enough to finish an REU or temp tech position.
  • Make a point of getting off campus. Staying in the physical location of a toxic place can be just as nauseating as the people actually there. Either alone or with your cohort, try exploring the local area. Get outside: and let the personality of the place you are in, heal the events you’ve experienced that week.

There is also just those places where you can tell friendships or mentorships are short term, or are only about the transactional relationship between you and your higher-ups. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good solution to that. People are either good people, or they aren’t. You cannot do hard enough work, or write a good enough paper, or clean data quickly enough to make a cold person kind to you. My advice to either avoid those people, or to only interact with them with another person as an intermediary (or witness). When I was at MBL, it was pretty clear that the local community was only begrudgingly tolerating us summer folk–some more politely than others. At one internship, a man was exceptionally mean to younger folks–especially women. If I ever needed to use the general tech room where R* worked, I always brought the other intern from my lab or I explicitly silenced R*’s mansplaining with ” This is what my PI directed me to do. Would you like to ask her about it?”

The other big issue that can happen during REU’s is not meshing well with the primary advisor or research group. This has happened to me. I know it’s really hard to feel that you beat the odds to earn a space in a research group, only to have them ostracize you. The truth of the matter is, your PI won’t know something is wrong until you tell them. I know it’s hard to speak up: but if an advisor is worth their salt, they will listen to you and try their best to help.

  • If they don’t help, or if you feel as if you have been retaliated against: tell the NSF coordinator. A good coordinator will listen to what you have to say, and even if they cannot stop the behavior in the lab, they will step in on your behalf in other ways (such as writing you a letter of rec in the future).

If nothing changes–if the adults around continue to either gloss over your issues, or if they proceed to use your reaching out to hit other folks with it, you are allowed to leave. I mean this: you are allowed to resign and ask to be sent home. You are completely allowed to quit a toxic internship. The entire point of an REU or tech position is to form relationships with people in the field you want to go into. If things are to the point where these relationships are irreparably broken, or if the place is toxic enough that you can’t even form them:l e a v e. The only thing that happens when you stay in a toxic place is that a bunch of cruel clowns get you to do work for them that they later don’t have to. There’s no reason to help folks who aren’t invested in your growth as a person, a scientist, or as a student. I didn’t leave a toxic situation because I thought my success as a future academic depended on trading my work ethic (and ability to internalize emotional abuse) for good letters of rec. In truth, I already had those letters of rec from the people and places who had uplifted me before. In truth, me staying in a place I clearly wasn’t wanted only hurt me. I could’ve spent so much more of my personal energy and support network on bettering myself and starting my academic career a year sooner, if I had only left a bad place when it became clear the REU was unsalvageable. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through. Here are signs that you cannot trust the folks in power, and should leave ASAP:

  • Graduate students or techs in the lab or department constantly talk down to you (‘this is why you’re from a third rate research institution” “your  young companion just made the same mistake”)
  • Coordinators consistently talk down to other students, except their own (“you’re from FSU, I’m surprised you can even read”)
  • Students are afraid to talk to you with their advisor around
  • Coordinators consistently gossip to you about one another, or about PIs and their (lack of) funding (“everyone here is running on soft money or credit cards”)
  • PI’s leverage their emotions over you (“I’m upset you didn’t do this for me” or “I’d be sad if”)
  • PIs or coordinators who openly target minority students during lectures, as jokes or “teachable moments”
  • Students who feel forced to stay with the same PI after multiple rounds at the same REU (“if I don’t stay here, he’ll just give someone else the credit for my research and I’ll lose everything I worked on”)
  • Students who tell stories about PIs immediately once the coordinators leave
  • Students with substance abuse issues (if you are all at the same bar EVERY night, something is wrong)
  • Coordinators who force the cohort to do the end of REU NSF survey while they are in the room, before the REU has ended.

I’m sorry this post isn’t cheery. But I think we send kids off with a lot of high hopes for their summer paths, and not a lot of advice of what to do once they are lost in the woods. It’s okay to reach out. It’s okay to find your way around bad people to make a place habitable. It isn’t okay to force you to hurt yourself, for the science. Science needs everyone; but bad internships don’t need you.

I hope everyone has a good summer, and safe travels when you go.

~tsm

a brief anatomy of my research (so far)

To honor the start of my journey as a graduate student, I thought it would be a good idea to recap how I got here in the first place! Talking about Research Opportunities for Undergraduates (REUs) on Twitter brought back a lot of memories of my (many) internships–might as well talk about the research while the memories linger. (This blog on research won’t include the work I did as an ecology laboratory tech or macroecology lab member for the Kerkhoff Lab at Kenyon College)

My first foray into the science of nutrient cycling was actually not related to ecosystem science at all. It was my first-year biology lab project, looking at how changes in diet quality affected the survival and metamorphosis rates in the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta). This was a pilot study, but the part that intrigued me was the way hornworms placed on the low quality diet seemed to shift how they used the energy coming to them–once they had been on the low quality diet, they never seemed to be able to use the energy they received to grow large enough to survive metamorphosis.

However, with my first REU, I quickly moved into larger scale nutrient cycling. PINEMAP was the REU which accepted me, even though at that time my major was still listed as Neuroscience (a story for a different day). At PINEMAP, I was loaned out to North Carolina State University and their research cooperative with USDA Forestry Service. While I worked on many different projects during my 13 week REU, my main project was looking at the effect of nitrogen (N) fertilization, drought stress, and soil type on the water use efficiency of pine trees. Basically, we wanted to see how trees used water when they were stressed out; and on how this changed depending on if the tree was fertilized with extra nutrients or in a certain type of soil. This work involved a lot of dendrochronology, chemistry, and isotopic analysis. We would take a tree ring from a wet year(a fat tree ring, usually) and then a tree ring from a bad year (skinny rings); then using a lot of chemical washes, strip down the cellulose in the tree rings down to a soft white substance called alpha-cellulose. The isotopic makeup of the alpha cellulose can tell us if the tree is using groundwater or surface water, or how stressed the plant is. Additionally, the sources of water and carbon within the plant coupled with width of the tree rings themselves tell us if the tree is storing carbon onto its body or consuming the sugars its producing–is the tree living to eat, or eating to live? I think during PINEMAP the intern and I read and dated 3000 tree cores sampled from sites across the southeastern United States

I really loved using these intensively chemical and physiological methods to investigate large scale movements of vital nutrients like carbon, so my second internship was at Marine Biological Labs. Yes, that one, in Wood’s Hole, MA. If you’ve followed me on Twitter, then you know my experience there wasn’t the most pleasant. The pure research side of it is–well, I don’t really know what it was supposed to be. I was largely an assistant to a remediation project headed by another (male) intern; he didn’t have a declared major or even know if he wanted to continue in the sciences, but he had his own project. The Great Pond project was looking at the efficacy of installing oxygen bubblers in a nitrogen (N) polluted harbor to control the amount of sulfur-reducing bacteria in the soils. Theoretically, these sulfur-reducing bacteria would cease to multiply in the high O environment the bubblers would provide–allowing plant life to re-establish itself in the harbor, bringing fish and crustaceans with it. This didn’t work, largely because Great Pond is too shallow for a bubbler system to work.

The other loosely connected project that I was part of–I say loosely connected because I didn’t really know what the point of the fieldwork was until week 5 of the 10 week internship–was looking at the role of eelgrass meadows in mediating N-pollution in West Falmouth Harbor. Traditionally, eelgrass acts as a nursery for most coastal species of fish, shellfish, and in general seafood things we humans like to eat. However, eelgrass is easily out-competed by algae in waters where N contamination is high: eelgrass can’t use the nitrogen, but algae can. The algae then bloom, and the bloom shades out the eelgrass–who die because they can’t get enough sunlight for photosynthesis. My job was to weigh the eelgrass samples that came from discrete parts of the harbor. I guess it was to then estimate, as mass per area, the amount of eelgrass in the different parts of the harbor. That way, we could then correlate the amount of N-containing species in the water and soil cores taken from those parts of the harbor to the amount of eelgrass, and determine if the presence (or absence) of eelgrass helped ease nitrogen contamination or keep it in the harbor. I don’t actually know the outcome of any of that fieldwork or research.

 

My last internship was an international student exchange through affiliates of the BIEN project. Basically, me and a student from the University of Arizona and a student from China were sent to the Universitetet i Bergen (UIB). My project here was much more straightforward than any other projects I’ve been part of. Here, we were investigating how much each plant functional group contributes to the overall carbon flow of a grassland. We defined plant functional groups pretty simply: things that flowered were forbs, tall grassy things were grasses, and everything  else was a bryophyte. Before doing carbon flux measurements with a DIY soil chamber and a very old Licor, we would remove one, two, or all three of the plant functional groups from different places in the grassland. We would then let the plot heal for a week, and then measure carbon flux over a whole day for the plots. In the lab, my mentor would then compare the plot’s carbon flux to determine the change in carbon flow based on the removal. We did this for alpine, mid-altitude, and low-altitude grasslands across Norway to see if the contribution of each plant functional group to carbon flux is the same across latitudinal gradients. We also compared carbon flux in wet sites versus dry sites to see if carbon flux is mediated by water availability for any (or all) plant functional groups. I did most of the fieldwork, scribing data and weighing many things and doing lots of measurements of soil temp and moisture while also babysitting the licor users. One of the papers is out, and you can read it here.

 

So that is the body of my research so far. I really like carbon and water cycling, because the whole world basically depends on fresh water and different forms of carbon. I want to know how we can best manage ecosystems through vegetation regimes to keep C/water cycling at a point where us humans can live comfortably in the system we are in.

greetings from the carbon cycle

hello, it’s me, Itati VCS; everyone’s favorite aspiring graduate student. I’ve finally decided to make a blog; mostly because I am about to start graduate school! I feel like a science communication centered blog, in tandem with my Twitter account, would be a good way to catalog my descent into academia. For the most part, my blog will focus on my slice of carbon cycle and plant physiology research, as well as the trials and tribulations of being a woman of color in graduate school. Of course, my Twitter page will stay active–but the blog will be a place where the general populace can sit down and enjoy a stable meal of carbon-based #scicomm in a more accessible form than Twitter threads. Don’t worry–having a professional blog will NOT mellow me out. If anything, feel free to @ me on Twitter if anything is amiss.

Thanks for starting on this journey with me.

~itativcs