outside research field work dirt ecology

Why I care about ecology and you should, too!

Why I chose to be a field ecologist

Think everyone who works outside likes dirt? Think again!

Growing up, I loved plants and animals, but hated being outside. I didn’t like getting dirty or wet. I hated being too cold or too hot, and didn’t like being in the sun (even now I prefer to look like a vampire than be in the sun getting tan). I was way more into staying inside and reading mystery novels or watching “Lizzie McGuire” on the Disney Channel. Right about now, you might be wondering how I ended up as a field ecologist then. Isn’t being out in the sun, rain, and dirt sort of required for that line of work?

First off, some of you might want to know what ecology really is. Ecology is the branch of biology that studies the interactions of organisms to each other and their environment, which is basically just a fancy way of saying that we’re interested in how plants, animals, and the environment affect each other.

It didn’t start out that what I had to do to be an ecologist made me choose this path, it’s why I was doing it. Even being the dirt-hating child that I was, I grew up around science. My dad is a physicist and I spent my childhood watching my dad travel for experiments and hearing about his cool research. Getting paid to travel and answer scientific “mysteries”? It sounded awesome. I loved learning new information and figuring out how things worked and why things happened (which is probably why I loved mystery novels so much). However, I never thought back then I would end up as a master’s student performing my own research. I was so intimidated by scientists. Every scientist I met through my dad seemed so smart; I would never be capable of performing research or teaching like they could. Even in high school, I had the spelling ability of a ten-year-old (my worst subject…).

Since the 1st grade, I wanted to be an elementary school teacher like my mom. Even as a kid, I wanted to work with other kids. I enjoyed devoting my time to others and feeling like I was making a difference in people’s lives. Starting my freshman year in high school, I moved from physics to biology for my science class. Suddenly I was learning about animals, plants, and the environment without actually having to be outside. And more importantly, I started learning about the environment in a holistic way, how all organisms and the non-living factors such as weather - also called “abiotic factors - affect each other in a feedback loop. After studying ecology and learning about researchers who study the environment for a living, it occurred to me that this career path combined so many of my favorite topics. Researchers got to solve environmental ‘mysteries’, teach others about the environment, and in so doing help people, animals, and the environment. Additionally, many researchers got to work directly with animals and plants, which is something I had always enjoyed doing (inside anyway).

In college, I decided to conquer my dislike for dirt and major in Biology; I loved so much of what being an ecologist meant that I decided to not let a little bit of dirt get in my way. I got my first real field experience the summer after my sophomore year. Being out in the sun was suddenly exciting because it meant I was doing research. I was contributing my research findings to other scientists, just like the ecologists I used to read about in high school. After I graduated college, I even got an awesome opportunity to be a field technician out in the desert southwest hiking up mountains for six months. What made this opportunity even more exciting to me, was that I was working with bats (one of my favorite animals) mostly at night (my favorite time of the ‘day’).

image alt text Fig. 1 The view of a lifetime in Death Valley National Park.

image alt text Fig. 2 Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park. The ground behind the sign is covered in salt – the little bit of “water” there is so salty that it’s really “bad” for you.

Now, I’m a second year Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I study the invasive plant garlic mustard and how it affects other plants in a community (in biology, a “community” is all of the interacting species in a given area). This past year, I’ve found myself stuck inside at my desk sending e-mails more often than actually being outside. I’ve really started missing the fresh air and looking back to when I was younger, it’s hard to remember why I didn’t like being outside… except I still kind of don’t like the feeling of dirt.

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Fig. 3 In the top left, you can see garlic mustard (also known as Alliaria petiolata) in its first-year “rosette” life stage. (Look at all that dirt!) Photo provided courtesy of Peter Muka.

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Fig. 4 Me diligently collecting height data on tree seedlings in fall of 2015. Photo courtesy of Peter Muka.

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