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Helping the wood turtles and learning about passion: REU students participate in annual service and career day

Tuesday, July 20, 2010, by Aleta Wiley
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Last week, all 33 REU students got to take a day off from their regular research projects in order to participate in Service and Career Day, an annual event held each summer for the Program.

For 4 hours in the morning, the students worked for The Trustees of Reservations (TToR), a land trust established in 1891. On the Brooks Woodland Preserve, just a few miles from Harvard Forest, TToR is restoring habitat to be suitable for wood turtles, a threatened species. The turtles need to be able to travel between a small creek in the woods and a newly-created opening in the forest where they will lay their eggs. However, significant amounts of woody debris (such as fallen limbs and branches) accumulated on the ground when the meadow was restored. The REU students were tasked with moving this debris so that it would not prevent the wood turtles from arriving at their mating sites. “We’re building a turtle highway to turtle sex heaven!”, as one student summarized.

“Think like a turtle. Get on your hands and knees, if you like, to try to see what might be a barrier for a wood turtle along this corridor,” Walker Korby, North Quabbin Superintendent of TToR, told the students.

After a few hours of moving fallen limbs and raking down piles of dirt, Korby led the students through an interesting exercise in using peripheral vision. The students all formed a circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, and then practiced using their peripheral vision by focusing on their hands, which they held out to the sides of their faces. Once used to focusing sideways, the students tried to throw a ball to each other, across the circle. The exercise taught the students how they actually can see much more of their surroundings using this type of vision, rather than our instinctive mode facing forward.

The purpose of this restoration project took some time for the students to understand. They learned about land restoration and discussed different philosophies on conservation and wilderness protection while working on this service project. In the end, most students felt like they had contributed to the goals of TToR, and all were grateful to spend the day with their friends in the sun.

“Service Day introduced me to a local land trust that I didn't know very much about before, and let us explore beautiful, local, preserved woodland that I don't think any of us knew existed.”Megan Jones

"Service day really taught me the meaning of friendship. I really enjoyed working together with the other REU students. Although our work was not the most exciting, working side by side with other students who share my passion was."Kristen Schipper

“For service day, we were supposed to scatter piles of broken branches to make it easier for wood turtles to cross the woods from the pond towards the clearing. It became an interesting and fun exercise for us to figure out how it would be easiest from a wood turtle's perspective to navigate the debris. Another exercise we did was using our peripheral vision to determine the extent of our visual ranges. Using this vision, we practiced throwing balls and trying to catch them without following them with our eyes (i.e. using peripheral vision).”Sarah Fouzia Choudhury

In the afternoon, the students participated in Career Day. Five panelists came to Harvard Forest to discuss their personal careers and the paths they had taken throughout their lives to get to where they are today. The speakers included Betsy Colburn (Aquatic Ecologist at Harvard Forest), Stephen DeStefano (USGS MA Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit & University of Massachusetts), Elizabeth Farnsworth (New England Wildflower Society), Wayne Petersen (Massachusetts Audubon), and David Graham Wolf (Mt. Grace Land Trust).

The speakers first spent about an hour introducing themselves to the REU group. All speakers discussed the importance of passion and finding jobs and careers which you enjoy. Many of the speakers had taken circuitous career paths to their current jobs and spoke about how, even though they had times in their lives of uncertainty, job opportunities always had a way of arising at the right time. The students then broke into five smaller groups and each had a chance to talk in depth with each of the five speakers.

Almost all of the students found Career Day to be immensely valuable, in large part because the speakers demonstrated how “choosing a career” does not mean having to choose one interest and to relinquish the rest. People find ways to be artists, writers, lawyers, teachers, and businessman, and still have careers working in ecology, conservation, and the natural resources.

“The speakers at Career Day were striking examples of how attached people can become to the New England landscape, and how this attachment to place can shape a person's future l also learned more about the work done by land trusts, and about the different way research and advocacy can be integrated.”Megan Jones

"Each of the speakers at career day provided us with enlightening and interesting information about careers in the ecology and natural resources fields. The most important thing I took away from career day is that it is okay to blend your interests for future endeavors, even if they seem quite different, such as art and science or business and ecology. I greatly value the knowledge and information I took away from career day at Harvard Forest."Autumn Amici

“It was most gratifying to see so many bright young faces potentially interested in the biological and environmental sciences, all willing to spend a hot summer afternoon listening to others talk about their own experiences and careers. I felt that the attention and enthusiasm exhibited by the students, as well as by my fellow colleagues on the panel, was exemplary and I was very pleased to have been part of such a distinguished group. I hope everyone else profited from the experience as much I did!”Wayne Petersen, Director, Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program, Massachusetts Audubon