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Taking Time for a Look Back

Wednesday, July 30, 2014, by Alison Ochs
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[Red-backed salamanders]Almost ten weeks in and it feels like I've only just arrived. When I first got here, I felt like I'd have all the time in the world to finish my project, and now deadlines are approaching and it's time to crunch.

[Ahmed and I checking a coverboard for salamanders]

I based my independent project off of the project my mentor, Ahmed Hassabelkreem, has been working on. My mentor is part of a group examining the effects of an invasive insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, which is causing a severe decline in hemlock forests in the eastern USA. Specifically, he is looking at how this transition from hemlock to hardwood affects salamanders, which often act as indicators of ecosystem health and change. Knowing that salamanders live in the soil and have highly permeable skin, I was surprised that he was not examining how soil quality affects them. I designed my project to examine the effect of forest health on soil quality and of soil quality on salamander abundance, in order to determine if there was a link between these three variables that would allow salamander abundance to be used as an indicator of forest health.

[Lab work for soil nutrient analysis]

When I first formed my idea, it seemed relatively straightforward to my inexperienced mind. However, I soon realized that I would need to learn everything from how to determine soil quality to how to measure soil pH to how to conduct a series of statistical analyses I'd never even heard of. It seemed almost overwhelming, but with some research and an incredible amount of help from not only my mentor but other researchers and lab technicians, I managed to collect the data and conduct the tests I needed. Now, as I furiously skim papers to try and make sense of my findings in time to plan my presentation, I can only look back and fervently thank the people I worked with here who made my project possible.

[The salamander crew]

I've learned an incredible amount from my work here. Not only did I gain technical skills for soil analysis and an understanding of the ecological system I worked with, but I also learned about the research process, time management, work ethics, and what it really means to do science. From spending an extra day and a half redoing my soil analyses after an equipment failure, to tromping around the forest at night in a thunderstorm, to finding out half your data isn't actually useful, I've learned that science doesn't go perfectly all the time - in fact, hardly ever. But that is simply part of the process, a process I've come to love. My experiences here have only cemented my goal to enter the research field, and I can only hope that I will continue to learn and contribute to our understanding of the world we live in.