By Veronica Winter
Purchase College, Environmental Studies and Biology major, interested in ecology
Citizen science is a newer concept attempting to be implemented in many scientific fields. Citizen science is a way to get the public’s help on projects, like the one that Dr. Jackson is conducting. Volunteers can help out in a variety of ways; whether that's in the field data collection, online collection, or data analysis. By having such volunteers allows for larger scale projects to take place with greater efficiency. For us, it’s having our volunteers collect as many bugs as they can; terrestrial and aquatic, big and small. The goal here is two-fold; get a greater number of people to collect data and open the floor up to communication. Science communication is important for numerous reasons and helps debunk some of the myths of science. Myths such as being stuck in a lab all day and needing to know advanced chemistry and math for anything you want to study in order to be successful. For me, I never thought science was a field that I would be able to be a part of. Scientists always appeared to be people with a natural gift that always knew their place in this special club that few could join. It wasn’t until later in my life that I attempted to get into this world and realized how open and multi-layered it really was. So, to have the opportunity to help others get involved and interested is really something special.
We have met an array of people from all walks of life. Naturalists, educators of all levels, parents and grandparents, young kids interested in science, and teenagers who couldn’t have cared less (until they collected their first bug.) The people we meet each week may all be different but the days often start off the same; intimidated and shy at first, followed by intense excitement and not wanting to stop. At our most recent citizen science day, we had two girls, Molly and Emma, who were going into 4th and 8th grade respectively. The two were dragged out by their grandma and while Molly couldn’t wait to jump in, Emma wasn’t as into it. She had told us about her fear of spiders and how she wanted nothing to do with them. As time went on, both seemed equally as eager and by the end of the day; Emma was elated about the number of bugs that she collected (spiders included.) Who knows, maybe one day these girls will want to get into science, and maybe not, but having this opportunity to contribute to scientific research is something they can always take with them.
A question is raised though, how does the data look? Enthusiasm for sure pays off! The groups always seem to shock us with the amount of bugs they find both in the aquatic and terrestrial settings. We still have a ton of data (and bugs) to go through, but so far it is clear that citizens have been a previously untapped resource. With their help, projects such as these can potentially be expanded from national parks to other areas, and in larger numbers.
Science communication is a big up and coming field that is so important for a variety of reasons. Diversity, whether in the the world or the workplace, is important, because everyone deserves to have someone to look up to. Someone to help mentor future generations into not thinking like I did, to think “Why not me” and to think that its all accessible. I’ve had some great role models in my academic career, but it wasn’t until this year that I had a female mentor to help guide me through my academic dilemmas and constant questions. Having someone like you, whether thats a fellow woman or first generation student or whoever you align yourself with, it’s important that that person exists in your life to show you that the obstacles are temporary but the payoff is all worth it. Wouldn’t it be great for kids to get that opportunity earlier in life?
Science is an amazing field full of opportunity and wonder, sometimes though, someone needs to open the door and help facilitate that curiosity. For the kids and parents and everyone in between who have been coming out, I hope we have been those people.
We saw an explosion of beetle larvae at Marshall Brook this week. We never had seen these guys before but it was hard to miss them on Wednesday! Probably this represents some sort of synchronous hatching event and I have to think it could be some good bird food! We are still budding insect taxonomists so we aren't 100% sure what these larvae are, but our best guess is that they are larvae of the flea beetle. We had found the adult flea beetles in high abundance the previous weeks, so it makes sense that we might see a large amount of their babies now!
With some variation, you can see that our collection is showing fairly similar counts of the other insects across our dates. Exciting stuff!
Dr. Allyson Jackson
Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies, professional couch sitter.
A sprained ankle has me stuck at home today while the crew is out catching bugs, so I figured it’s only fair that I contribute a blog post to all the great ones that the students have been writing.
Last night, Veronica asked me something along the lines of “so be honest, will you ever do another field season with only undergrad help?” I think she may have been picking up on my frustration that is mostly based on me getting hurt and not being able to totally help with things (and enjoy being in Maine – who actually wants to be stuck on the couch in the summer?!).
But it is true that running this rather large and complex field season with only undergrad help is challenging… but I honestly wouldn’t do it any other way. Putting aside the fact that Purchase College only has undergraduates and I don’t have a ton of grant money to get my work done (both of which makes it hard to hire grad students or technicians), I really like that I can give everyone their first true field job experience. This is important for two main reasons:
First, students need to see if they really like being field biologists. I think we all get into field biology because we like being outside and we romanticize that field work will be like a National Geographic article – exciting and colorful and life changing. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s just awful. Instead of choosing to be outside, you HAVE to be outside – even if it’s hot, even if it’s cold, even if you would rather sleep in. I always say if you are doing fieldwork well, you should be doing exactly the same thing over and over again, which actually can be very boring. We have the luxury this summer of working in beautiful Acadia National Park, but I still get tired – tired of PB&J, tired of early mornings, tired of wading through muck that wants to suck you in, tired of living in the field house. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but I find, for me, the excitement of learning something that no one else knows, based on data that I fought through weather and exhaustion to collect is enough to keep me going year after year. I think bringing undergrads with me on this journey allows them to see if they really would like this lifestyle too. The earlier you get over the romantic view of fieldwork, the better you can plan your career goals.
Second, I feel it’s my moral obligation to help the next generation of biologists. I got here because mentors throughout the years took chances on me – starting with the research opportunities I was given when I was an undergraduate. Field biology and environmental studies are difficult fields to get into because it always seems like jobs want you to already have experience before they will hire you. But how do you get that experience if no one will hire you??? We try to provide skills training in our lab courses but there really is no substitute to working on a real project and having a mentor who will speak to your abilities. So I see it as my role to provide these early experiences so that my students can get their little wader-clad boot in the door and make it to the big time.
So hopefully I will be off this couch and back working soon. But I also feel like the undergrads are getting a whole new experience where they really are the technicians on this project. I can imagine them being asked in a future job interview about this summer and they can say “well at first I was just an intern, but then my professor maimed herself and couldn’t get off the couch so then I was the field boss”. Who knows, maybe that will get them the job!
Purchase College, Environmental Studies Major
I wanted to make the most of my time here with my short stay in Maine. I jumped right in the routine of field work and got to assist in the collection of terrestrial and aquatic bugs at our four main sites. Being in the field has helped me actualize my project, but it also has brought up so many more questions and opportunities for investigation into how mercury is transmitted through riparian ecosystems. We know that songbirds in the same habitat can have drastically different levels of mercury, but how does that happen? Is a specific insect responsible for transmitting mercury to songbirds? I will be using DNA metabarcoding to identify the species that the songbirds are eating to hopefully answer some of these questions.
The dirty parts of this project don’t end with inhaling bugs. We have been collecting blood samples from songbirds to test for mercury, but we have also been collecting songbird fecal samples. In the next year, we will be processing these fecal samples using a method called DNA metabarcoding. The metabarcoding process is similar to using the music app shazam. We start with a small sound clip, or in this case several small fragments of DNA that we have recovered from each fecal sample. These DNA sequences are referenced to multiple DNA databases, and just as the app can identify the song from the clip, we can identify the species of bugs that the songbirds are eating. The ability to identify what the songbirds are eating can give us invaluable insight into the songbirds mercury exposure, and will hopefully tell us how mercury is traveling through the riparian ecosystem.
In just over a week, I have learned so much including how to identify local bugs and birds. It has been great to work with familiar faces and exciting to see so many citizen scientists that are getting involved with the project as well. I have had so much fun learning, participating in fieldwork, and exploring Acadia National Park. One week felt like a day, and I have never seen a beautiful place.