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Troubleshooting: the key to success


Friday, July 11, 2014, by Laura Figueroa
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I arrived this summer with a general idea of the research I was to conduct and the environment where I would be: study climate change ecology and live in a house full of college students. This summer has proven to be so much more. I have fine-tuned my research skills in ways that I never would have expected and have made amazing friends along the way. As the first week passed I understood that I was not simply going to take measurements for a graduate student's thesis, I was also to develop my own project from beginning to end.

[Laura at the research site outside a heating chamber.]The team I am on works with "heating chambers" which mimic the natural state of the forest with the exception of temperature. These chambers are helpful in gaining understanding of future ecological dynamics that may occur with climate change. I decided I wanted to look at the effect of invertebrates on decomposition. I chose this because I know the importance of decomposition as an environmental process: without the breakdown of complex organic "stuff", life on the planet would soon run out of space and cease. Now, how to go about designing a project that would allow me to observe decomposition and control for invertebrate presence?

The answer arrived after a literature search: 3D decomp bags! I would have to make different types of bags that would hold leaf litter, some with no holes (so no bugs could get through), some with small holes (for the little guys), and some with big holes (let everyone in). I was on a roll with the ideas but how exactly do you make all of these bags? I looked and looked for containers in which I would house the leaf litter but no hardware stores had the right fit. The solution? Talk to the local grocery store for their left over berry containers!

I was able to acquire 90 strawberry containers locally: better for the planet and better for me. Now for the bags... The sewing machine gave me so many problems I lost count: the bobbin would get stuck, the needle would break (3 times!), I would run out of thread, on and on... The frustrations mounted: how was I to finish and be able to have my project run if I ran into problems every step of the way? Instead of giving up hope and complaining to my very understanding friends at the house (who very sweetly kept me company in the middle of the night as I would yell into the sewing machine for breaking for the 7th time that day), I decided to take a deep breath and keep trying. The "troubleshooting" attitude made me proactive and productive. In the end I was able to set up my experiment and gain the very valuable lesson of patience when things you cannot control go wrong. I am forever grateful and will have this attitude whenever I conduct research knowing it will save me much needed energy and time. 

[Getting very excited for deploying all 90 decomp bags.][A huge sigh of relief when all decomp bags were deployed.]

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