A short story. My life.

One day in advising I discussed my need for more experience; I wanted to start my own project, I wanted more. I desired an internship, something different than jumping on and helping out with other graduate student’s projects in Dr. Lynn Siefferman’s lab or Dr. Ray Williams’s lab, of which I still adored. One day in an advising appointment Dr. Siefferman told me about a list of internships that I should try my luck in applying for summer 2017. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center was one of them; she figured it would suit me well. Quickly that same day I browsed the Smithsonian Institution website, chose the terrestrial ecology section and wrote an essay on my love of questions.

Ever since I was a child I would ask about the natural world. I wanted microscopes and magnifying glasses for Christmas, so I could look closer at the butterflies or lizards, not dolls or cars. I wrote of my education, how I’ve always wanted more out of my studies and have jumped onto any scientific work I could possibly put my hands on. I discussed the laboratory work I performed in Dr. Siefferman’s and Dr. William’s laboratories.

The last item I needed for my application was a recommendation letter from them both but I honestly thought the internship was a farfetched, unattainable idea, me working for the Smithsonian; that just doesn’t happen.  However, three months later I got an email of interest by one of the post doctorates working in the lab there, followed by a phone interview, and well, it looked like the idea was too far gone after all. The phone interview went very well, and ended by her congratulating me on the position and stating that she looked forward to working with me. I sat in disbelief until I received the paperwork.

A little background on the Smithsonian Institution. It was founded by James Smithson, a British scientist who left his estate to the United States in order to create, under the name Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. He sold everything he had to create this institution, though he died in 1829 before the institution was thoroughly organized. On August 10, 1846, the U.S. Senate passed the act organizing the Smithsonian Institution. It then became an important part of the American national identity. It represented exploration, innovation and the unique American style, which carries on in the institution today.

My division of the Smithsonian, where my internship resided, was the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). This specific campus is located in Edgewater, Maryland. A dairy farmer named Robert Lee Forrest donated his 368-acre dairy farm to the Smithsonian after his death in 1962, and it quickly became apparent that the Java farm and surrounding area provided a wide variety of habitats (terrestrial, wetland, estuarine, etc.) and that the land was a valuable resource for biology and ecology. The center was officially established in 1965 as the Chesapeake Bay Center for Field Biology and renamed later that year to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Today SERC encompasses 2,650 acres of land and is home to various senior scientists and over 180 other researchers.

The campus is also very beautifully nestled away from the city. I lived in a large house essentially, that seconded as the auditorium, with 5 other people. The living quarters were beautiful and provided me with all of my supplies, though I needed to cook and entertain myself. Stocked with books, board games and movies, they really minded the details. I was excited, and the other interns were absolutely wonderful. It is always worrisome moving to a whole new place for three months without anyone you know, but we were all so similar, serious and passionate about our work but still able to unwind on the weekend together.

Speaking of the weekends, the Smithsonian provides so many weekend events on the National Mall and perks for their employees. We could go into the Smithsonian museums and skip the lines, see IMAX movies for free, and obtain a discount within the gift shops among other great perks. The staff even had happy hours they all went to once a week at a different bar where the senior scientists, the post-docs, and the interns were welcome to have a few drinks and decompress. The community structure of this place was admirable.

As for my work, I was not handed a project. I worked within the terrestrial ecology department and though I was given a tour and access to all of their data and facilities it was my job to ask a question that interested me and come up with an experimental design. In the meantime, and throughout my internship, I worked closely with a post-doctoral fellow Karen Burghardt and assisted her on her data collection. The summer is field work season, therefore that is was I spent 70% of my working hours doing. Only a small portion was entering data.

Another crucial part of this experience was the access I had to outside resources and perspectives from scientists with various backgrounds.

Once a week there was a seminar on various important topics. Whether it was a panel of scientists discussing whether to go to graduate school/whether to obtain your PhD, how to give a scientific talk, science ethics, writing/publishing a scientific paper, information on careers in realms of science other than academia, etc. They were all incredibly informative. I originally thought I had to go to graduate school and obtain a PhD to become successful in science as a research scientist. It wasn’t something I gave a second thought about. After hearing five different scientists in a panel discuss the pros and cons that I hadn’t even considered, such as becoming over qualified for various positions and not necessarily obtaining a substantially larger pay raise, I have recently changed my mind.

They even discussed the dangers of going to graduate school and choosing a field you aren’t so passionate about just to choose one and possibly becoming miserable under a bad mentor for years that doesn’t suit your needs. Seminars like these are something that I feel should be available to all undergraduate scientists and the Smithsonian does an excellent job providing that. These seminars have not only informed me in a way schooling has not but has also led me to a different path in my career. Needless to say, as the summer was coming to a close, I felt a pang of melancholy in leaving this wonderful facility and these intelligent people I have met: my mentor Dr. John Parker, our lab tech, my post-doc fellow, the other interns. The last item of business was an intern symposium where all of the SERC scientists sat down and watched the intern’s present their summer work. My project had to do with caterpillars and biodiversity.

Biodiversity is a vital component of our terrestrial systems as it increases ecosystem productivity and its resistance to environmental change and has been declining due to deforestation and habitat loss. Insects make up the majority of animal biomass in terrestrial ecosystems, providing numerous services such as waste removal via nutrient cycling, assisting with the checks and balances that strengthens community stability and pollination in flowering plants.  Insect species have declined greatly in the last 40 years.

Caterpillars, insects in the order Lepidoptera, for example are a good indicate of how terrestrial systems are changing. They are a very diverse order, making up 20% of all named insect species. Insect make up 80% of the total number of described species therefore, understanding what drives their richness and abundance will help in understanding the biodiversity of the ecosystem. I wanted to ask the question- “is the quantity of resources available or the diversity of available resources that are effecting these populations?”

I used BiodiversiTREE, a largescale tree manipulation experiment enacted by my mentor, to conduct my trials. BiodiversiTREE was created in order to observe ecosystem function through manipulation. Sixteen tree species were planted into monoculture plots (two replicates per species of tree), 4-species plots (19 replicates per species), or 12-species plots (19 replicates per species). Each plot is 35 meters by 35 meters in size and has 255 trees per plot with 2.4 meters between trees. The tree species consist of fourteen canopy species and two sub-canopy species that are native to the local forests: Red Maple, Ironwood, Mockernut Hickory, Pignut Hickory, Dogwood, NA Beech, Green Ash, Tulip Popular, Blackgum, Sweetgum, Sycamore, Black Oak, White Oak, Southern Red Oak, Northern Red Oak, and American Elm.

I collected caterpillars from a proportion of the population within each diversity experiment (monocultures, 4 species polycultures, 12 species polycultures) using timed capture trials. This consisted of my post-doc and I choosing trees at random throughout the diversity experiments and marking them (for use in later trials). Then searching for caterpillars on the trees for 5 minutes each, noting the total number of caterpillars and species found. I also recorded canopy cover by means of hemispherical photography. This is a process in which a camera with a fisheye lens is angled towards the canopy on a tripod and the photos are then run through a program (Hemispherical 2.0) to measure canopy cover of that area. These data were used to quantify the abundance of foliage within each tree plot sampled.

I found that the amount foliage or “food” does not affect caterpillar species richness if the foliage is not diverse. When the foliage is diverse, in other words when more than one tree species is present, it’s increased abundance also increases caterpillar species richness. However, for caterpillar abundance, the opposite is true. If only one tree species is available, as the foliage increases, caterpillar abundance increases as well. Yet, as tree diversity increases, the relationship is lost between the two variables. This suggests that in areas where only a single species of tree or type of foliage is present you may receive more caterpillars, most likely generalists, and a less productive and diverse system overall.

After my presentation I felt accomplished. I had practiced it over and over for two weeks straight and it paid off. I had never given a scientific talk. I was surrounded by encouraging peers and other research scientists and couldn’t believe that I had finished and produced significant results in my own work. I didn’t even believe it was possible for the opportunity to happen for me and it can really happen for anyone who works hard and is really passionate about scientific research. This was a wonderful opportunity and I hope for the opportunity to work with them again in the future.

Other students can gain so much from this experience. The seminars given are important for an overall view of the scientific world outside of the classroom and how real science is conducted. This opportunity can give people a chance to branch out and really understand what it is like work as a scientist on your own. The other scientists guiding you can give you courage and confidence to present your findings to people, assuring you that you are heading in the right direction. Science is a whirlwind of a field and I believe that before this experience I really did not understand what the world was like for scientists and now at least I have a better idea. So to everyone, apply for internships and branch out of your comfort zone. This is the most valuable time of your life and good luck.

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>