Science of SciComm: Finding my place in the field

Two people at the edge of a wetland, working to collect data samples. Person on left holds a cup and pours liquid into a tube held by person on right. Both people are kneeling/crouched over the equipment.

The year before, I was in a rut. I needed a graduate degree to progress in research, but didn’t know how to narrow down my interests. I needed time to think… and six months thru-hiking 2,650 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) seemed like just the thing to get the creative juices flowing. With some ambition and serendipity, I also secured the opportunity to join Professor Michael McGrann and his team for two months of my hike surveying biodiversity along the trail. His project has focused on bird-habitat relationships and how phenology, distribution, and more are being affected by climate change (McGrann, 2011; McGrann, 2014; McGrann, 2016) and is only expanding in scope with time.  I was absorbed by the idea of being a thru-hiking research scientist – living in the wilderness and saving the earth sounded like being a superhero to me.

For the first forty days, I hiked alone. I took hundreds of pictures of all sorts of flora and fauna, but didn’t know what most were. I mainly knew to stay far away from rattling snakes and pretty flowers that smell like marijuana (poodle-dog bush). I admired the scenery as one does a Microsoft screensaver, but I yearned to know how it formed and functioned. I was excited to join the research team and finally slow down, observe the minuscule cogs of each ecosystem, and measure its health. The data we collected would inform conservation decisions to help preserve this trail that had given me so much already; I was most excited to finally give back.

The work began: we woke up before sunset and hiked until sundown stopping every 400-700 meters to survey. Three people stopped every time they saw a herptile to identify the species and measure the temperature and wind speed. The avian team set a recorder, listened to all the bird calls and songs, and notated species they heard and their proximity. The vegetation team classified the habitat and noted logging/fire damage. Lastly, the eDNA team squatted at water bodies to don nitrile gloves, pump 500 ml of water through a filter using a vacuum hand pump and a plastic Erlenmeyer flask, then fold the filter into a vial of alcohol.

It was the hardest job I’ve ever worked. Never apart, we put in 14-hour days for up to 10 days back-to-back with maybe an hour lunch break. I saw the trail with new eyes though as I learned to identify not just bird songs, but invasive species, logging damage vs trail maintenance, and evidence of fire and disease. I could identify the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog, knew chytrid fungus is the main threat to their survival, and was helping track the disease and save the species. I was a thru-hiking research scientist superhero.

Two months later, the research ended and I returned to the trail alone, off-duty but still identifying the birds that woke me up and the lizards I passed. I’d learned about the world around me, but I still hadn’t learned the lesson I truly needed to: my place in it.

On my last night in California, I decided to build a fire. Moments after doing so, I walked twenty feet up the trail to see if my friends were coming. Then I heard an unfriendly “Hey!” from back near my site. I returned to a woman standing in the glow of my fire with an unforgettable look of rage on her face. “You left your fire unattended,” she started. “Oh my bad, I was just gone for a second.” “Are you aware this is a no-fire zone?” “No, I wasn’t.” “You must not be a thru-hiker.” “No, I am.” “You must not be a Californian.” “No, I am.”

This woman, whose name I learned was Lisa, laid into me for the next ten minutes about how she grew up on this land and my negligence was threatening her family. She was right to chew me out – it was August and one spark could and has devastated communities. I was so disappointed in myself; that night was a slap in the face that I still had so much to learn.

My research passion started with enjoying being outdoors, was kindled by curiosity to learn more about it, and finally was lit ablaze once mentors took the time to teach me and I was able to ask questions they couldn’t answer. I am now studying recreation ecology at the University of Wyoming with these questions – as well as the PCT, McGrann, and Lisa – in the front of my mind.

To facilitate the curiosity, attention to detail, and self-reflection they gave to me, I created the attached Bingo game for anyone to print out and take on their next camping trip. Take it with you and learn how to find animals, evaluate ecosystem health, see humans’ impact, and be a recreationist who gives back.

Screenshot of a camping bingo sheet. Text at top reads: Camping Bingo. Rules: No walking off trail. Take only pictures and trash. Categories on the bingo card include animals, humans, health, and help. Full-text accessible version is available by clicking the download link below the image.
Screenshot of Courtney’s bingo sheet. You can access it by clicking on the link below. (©2021, Courtney Garrity)

References

McGrann, M. (2011). A Mega-transect Survey of Bird-Habitat Relationships along the Pacific Crest Trail in California (Doctoral Dissertation). Available from  ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global database. (Accession Order No. AAT 3456847)

McGrann, M. C., M. W. Tingley, J. H. Thorne, D. L. Elliott-Fisk, and A. M. McGrann. (2014). Heterogeneity in avian richness-environment relationships along the Pacific Crest Trail. Avian Conservation and Ecology 9(2): 8.  http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ACE-00695-090208

McGrann, M. C., and Furnas, B. J.. (2016). Divergent species richness and vocal behavior in avian migratory guilds along an elevational gradient. Ecosphere 7(8): e01419. 10.1002/ecs2.1419

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