My Final Blog Post

Through the very generous sponsorship of Spring Power & Gas, I was given the opportunity to join twelve other high school students in Acadia National Park this summer to examine how climate change is impacting the biodiversity in this region of Maine. Ever since a young age, I have loved both science and the outdoors, but, before this trip, I never could have imagined how these two interests could be combined in such an exciting way. By participating in research conducted outdoors in the field through the work of citizen scientists and professionals alike, I now know how accessible science can be.

Specifically, we were looking at how warming temperatures are impacting bird migration and fruit availability–and the overlap between the two. The scientists leading this research hypothesize that birds seeking cool temperatures are migrating further north during the winter, thus passing over Acadia during their return flight south later in the season. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures, scientists speculate, are causing fruit to bloom earlier in the season. If both of these hypotheses are true, this timing mismatch could deprive birds of the fuel they need for their long migration, while also depriving the plants of the fruit consumers they rely on to spread their seeds.

As our leading scientist Dr. Feldman explained, this interaction is a microcosm for what is happening around the globe. We know that temperatures are rising, but we don’t know exactly how this may affect our planet’s animals, plants, and people. While, at times, climate change can seem like a huge issue, too big for one individual to tackle, this experience helped shift my perspective, allowing me to recognize the impact small contributions can have. From biology driven research like what we were doing, to an engineering innovation, to an environmentally-conscious policy or law, to a powerful piece of artwork, it is uplifting to know there are many ways in which people are already fighting for a healthier planet. And, while I still don’t know exactly what role I may play, this experience reaffirmed my desire to be a part of the fight.

This experience also immersed me in the whole scientific process and made me realize that it’s something I admire and identify with. Each day in the field was a little different: we’d trek through thick brush to set up 1 meter by 2 meter plots; we’d crouch down on intertidal rocks in search of invertebrates; we’d fill red and yellow cups with water in hopes of catching insects; we’d count the number of huckleberries in each of our plots. At times, the work was challenging, but I truly felt like the data we were collecting could be used to discover something new, something of importance on a global scale. To be working side by side with a professional scientist at such a young age was incredibly empowering.

One highlight of the week was a presentation given by a female scientist conducting research similar to what we were doing. She described her work, answered questions, and asked us about our interests. Even though female role models in STEM abound in movies, books, articles etc, it was so inspirational to get to talk to a female scientist in person. It made me realize that someday I could be like her, getting to present research I was passionate about to a new generation of aspiring female scientists.

My week in Acadia flew by, and if I could return, I would do so in a heartbeat. I miss the breathtaking scenery. It was almost magical to look up at the stars in the pure midnight sky. Spending a week feeling this connected to nature reaffirmed the importance of preserving our planet’s natural beauty for future generations to enjoy. I miss the science. From counting caterpillars, to looking through microscopes, to searching for hermit crabs, it was a once in a lifetime experience to be immersed in this type of learning environment. I feel as if I’ve found a field–environmental science–that I really identify with and may want to pursue down the road. But, most of all, I miss the people. We all bonded so much, whether counting huckleberries or looking up at the magical night sky, and I know that we will all keep in touch for years to come.

I am so thankful to have had this incredible experience, and I hope many more students down the road get to enjoy this same life-changing experience.

-Sophia

Day #6: Lobsters, Stargazing, and Goodbyes

Sadly, today was my last full day in Acadia. These days have flown by far too fast, and it’s going to be so hard to say goodbye tomorrow.

This morning, we finished collecting data about the fruit in each of our plots. It was very rewarding to complete this phase and see our portion of the experiment through. Hopefully, the data we collected, along with that of future Earthwatch volunteers, will help contribute to the conclusions the scientists working on our project will eventually reach. I feel like this whole experience helped me gain a better appreciation for all the behind the scenes work that goes on in science. We all hear about the revolutionary breakthroughs, the Nobel Prizes, or the exciting discoveries, but we never hear about all the time and energy that it took to get there.

Afterwards, we hiked to a beautiful rocky area overlooking the waves (see picture below) to eat lunch. While there, a veteran who had served in the Navy and worked at the Navy base that used to be located at Schoodic Point (where we were), stopped by to talk to us. He told us how Acadia held a special place in his heart, and he described how he used to come and sit by the waves whenever he was feeling down. What he said resonated with me because I feel like the vastness and beauty of the national parks truly help put things into perspective. This just reaffirmed the importance of working to protect what is such a valuable resource for all Americans.

After spending the afternoon finishing up some final data analysis, collecting equipment, and returning supplies, we all gathered for one final dinner together. After a delicious meal (we all got to try whole lobsters freshly caught this morning!), we all gathered around a campfire for s’mores. We all made plans to keep in touch and maybe even participate in future science endeavors together! Then, we all headed over to the rocks on Schoodic Point to stargaze. It was such a beautiful way to end such a special week in Acadia. I am so thankful to have had this incredible and inspirational experience, and I hope many more can enjoy this privilege in upcoming years. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this blog.

-Sophia

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Recording data on fruit availability in the field.

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Working with my group members to identify a species in our plot.

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Stopping for a lunch break surrounded by Acadia’s natural beauty.

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My friends and I taking one final picture.

Day #5: Sea Stars, a Bioblitz, and Female Role Models in STEM

Today, we got an early start and headed out to the intertidal zone to participate in a bioblitz- the first at Fraser Point in Acadia since 1977. Essentially, for a set amount of time, we had to find and take pictures of as many intertidal sea creatures as possible. Thankfully, we were out on the rocks during low tide, so we were able to find all types of organisms, including those that are well-adapted both to being submerged in seawater during high tide and being exposed to oxygen during low tide. Some highlights included finding several sea stars along with lots of Jonah and Atlantic rock crabs (native to Maine) and green crabs (invasive).

After a few hours by the ocean, we returned to the lab to upload our photos to a really neat website called iNaturalist. Citizen scientists and professional taxonomists alike can upload pictures, then, after a preliminary identification by the uploader, professionals check and/or correct species identifications to ensure that the data is as accurate as possible. iNaturalist already has recorded 5,392,660 observations, helping to establish a valuable catalogue of species from around the globe. As a group, we contributed 253 new observations to the website today!

After lunch, a current PhD candidate at Boston University came to talk to us about her research regarding fruit availability/bird migration (very similar to what we’ve been doing). Even though female role models in STEM abound in movies, books, articles etc, it was so inspirational to get to talk to a female scientist in person. It made me realize that someday I could be like her, getting to present research I was passionate about to a new generation of aspiring female scientists.

I can’t believe tomorrow is my last full day in Acadia! These days have flown by, but I am so thankful to have had such an amazing experience. I will share more tomorrow night!

-Sophia

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The rocks were exposed during low tide so we were able to easily explore the intertidal zone.

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We collected the sea creatures in plastic containers to take pictures, before releasing them back into the ocean.

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Sea stars proved to willingly attach to just about anything–including my face!

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We also measured the temperature and salinity of the water.

Day #4: Technology, a Video Project, and Lots and Lots of Berries

Today was our first day of data collection in the field! We spent the morning and part of the afternoon back out in the forest where we set up our original quadrats. After locating our plots within the dense brush (now I understand why we had to be so careful about marking them well!), we were in charge of counting the amount and type of fruit within each quadrat. While at first, this might not seem like the most glamorous work, in the context of the bigger research project, it was exciting to know that our data will contribute to the conclusions Dr. Feldman will be making.

It was definitely challenging to ensure that our data was accurate, especially since some plots had upwards of a few hundred berries. So, we used a few strategies to try to minimize any potential error. First, two separate groups recorded data independently at each site, in hopes that the average numbers between the two groups would be as accurate as possible. Second, we experimented with different ways of taking data. At some sites, we recorded the raw data, counting every single berry. However, at other sites, we just had to assign a broad range of numbers (ex. 50–200 berries), so it was easier to estimate the total numbers.

By the end of the day, when we were all a little worn out, we were joking about how, in the new future, this type of manual work may be replaced by new technology, which could collect data quickly with little to no error. While there are certainly several ethical questions to ask before this type of technology would be implemented, it is exciting to think about the new places these innovations may take us in the upcoming years!

After we finished our fieldwork, we were interviewed by a videographer working on a project called Outside Science (Inside Parks). This is a really exciting initiative (a collaboration between the National Park Service and Colorado State University) that’s trying to increase public awareness about the many ways in which we can all get involved with science. The videographer asked us questions about our experience thus far and our hopes for the future. It’s great that this video will be shared with the greater public because initiatives like these will continue to inform and hopefully inspire more and more people to get outside and explore the science that abounds in our surroundings.

Tomorrow, we will shift our focus to the intertidal zone where we will be collecting and identifying various sea creatures. I’m looking forward to sharing more tomorrow night!

-Sophia

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A friend and I with the beautiful park behind us. Here you can see the two settings where we’ve been working: the forest, where we’ve been focusing on fruit and birds, and the intertidal zone, where we will be focusing on sea creatures.

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Hiking to our next work site for the day.

Day #3: A Hypothesis, Intertidal Zones, and Citizen Science

Today was a busy, but very exciting day in the field! In the morning, we finished setting up our quadrats in the woods, so tomorrow we will be able to start gathering official data. Since we were all more familiar with the process today, we were able to spend less time on the little details of the set-up and more time on the meaning of the data we will be collecting.

It’s been very different for me to participate in an experiment where the results are completely unpredictable. Indeed, the scientists hypothesize that the data will reveal a mismatch in fruit availability and bird migration due to temperature changes related to global warming. However, the results could potentially tell a completely different story. At first, this prospect concerned me because I felt like the fear of an “unsuccessful” experiment could discourage scientists from testing bold hypotheses. Dr. Feldman pointed out that there’s value in any conclusion, even if it isn’t what the original hypothesis had predicted. For instance, even if the results from this experiment showed that in fact fruit availability and bird migration were continuing to overlap in spite of environmental changes, that could open a new line of questions- maybe the species are adapting to the new climate, maybe the life cycle of fruit primarily determined by genetics rather than environment etc.

Later in the day, we shifted our focus to a new setting: the intertidal zone. About 40 years ago, Earthwatch researchers searched for and identified various species that live in this area. On Thursday, we will repeat this process, looking to see whether the intertidal environment has changed since the original experiment years ago. We are very lucky to have access to data that spans so many years, because this will provide a valuable source for comparison.

Finally, after dinner, Dr. Feldman gave us a briefing about the findings of the phenology (bird migration/fruit availability) experiment thus far. Since it’s only in its third year, it is hard to draw any real conclusions about trends in the data. Hopefully the experiment will continue for several more years, and discernible patterns will begin to emerge. He also told us about several exciting initiatives that are promoting citizen science, which is the involvement of the general public in scientific research. Website such as eBird or iNaturalist allow us all to participate in biological research by recording information about species we find in our own backyards.

After this talk, I was reflecting more about the importance of communication in science. This trip has been so exciting because it has helped bridge the gap between professional scientists like Dr. Feldman and all of the teenagers on the trip. Because this project has been so hands-on, I feel like it has made science seem that much more accessible, something that all of us on the trip could aspire to pursue down the road. I think that everyone- not just those of us who are fortunate to go on an expedition with Earthwatch- should feel like science is this accessible. Especially in a time when there are so many controversial, scientific issues. I feel like it’s critically important for the science world and the general public to truly understand one another.

I’m looking forward to another exciting day in the field tomorrow!

-Sophia

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Here I am setting up quadrants in the woods and marking each one with labelled flags.

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This is the whole group after our lunch break today.

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Here I am holding a sea urchin I found while exploring the intertidal zone today.

Day #2: Quadrats, Colors, and Ecosystems

Today was our first official day in the field! In the morning, we received an overview of the work we will be doing for the next three days. The research for which we will be collecting data is looking at how climate change has affected the phenology of birds and fruits. Scientists hypothesize that birds are migrating further north in search of cool temperatures, and thus are returning south and passing over Acadia later in the season. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures may mean that fruit in Acadia is ripening earlier. This could result in a mismatch in timing if ripe fruit is not available to fuel the long journey of birds flying over Acadia.

Dr. Feldman emphasizes that this is just a hypothesis that cannot be proven without backing from carefully collected data. Our team will specifically be collecting data on fruit availability by looking at 7 different species. Since unfortunately it would be nearly impossible to collect accurate data about all the fruit available in the park, today we worked to set up various sample sites that will hopefully be representative of the fruit available in Acadia as a whole.

In order for our data to be as accurate as possible, we were assigned randomized locations throughout the park to set up our quadrats, which are 1 x 2 meter plots of land marked by labelled flags. Since we didn’t want human bias (ex. looking for locations that were easily accessible or had pretty views) to affect where we will gather our data, we had to abide by the locations we were assigned- even if that meant climbing through brush, navigating around rocks, or travelling a long distance.

It was really interesting for me to see how hard it is to obtain accurate data in the field, since so many variables are uncontrolled. For instance, an auxiliary type of data we are collecting is the number and type of insects in each plot. We hung colored plastic cups filled with 1 inch of water on branches, in hopes of catching and being able to identify various insects. However, we had to randomly alternate between yellow and red cups because this can actually affect how attracted insects are to the location. It’s amazing how complicated ecosystems truly are- there are so many interactions between specialized types of living things, all of which can have repercussions for the rest of the environment. But I guess this is what makes it so interesting, and challenging, to study environmental change.

Seeing this type of research, which specifically focuses in on birds and plants, has reminded me of how many unique niches there are to be filled when addressing climate change. From biology-driven research like this, to an engineering innovation, to an environmentally-conscious policy or law, to a powerful piece of artwork, I really like the fact that there are so many ways in which people can fight for a healthier planet.

While I still don’t know which exact discipline I’ll be most interested in pursuing down the road, I do know that interacting with our changing planet will be at its core.

I’m really looking forward to continuing to share all that I’m learning over the upcoming days!

-Sophia

P.S. We’re having a few technical difficulties uploading photos, but hopefully I’ll soon be able to share some pictures of what I am doing!