Conducting fieldwork in Puerto Rico has been an amazing and rewarding experience. This was my first time performing fieldwork, and the process allowed me to discover new aspects about both biological research and myself, as a learner.
I was able to experience, firsthand, that the scientific process of data collection requires much planning and attention to small details. For our project, a few weeks of planning were required before we could actually begin to collect gas samples. During this time, we determined that we would sample at locations on ridges, slopes, and valleys; we had to physically locate these sites within the forest plot. This was a long process, and at times, it seemed as if we would never start data collection. However, it was necessary to ensure we were sampling at suitable locations. Once data collection was finally underway, it was vital to make sure all procedures were consistent. This proved to be difficult when working in the field because there are factors, such as weather, that cannot be controlled. On some days, we could not go out and collect samples because the ground was too wet, and would skew results.
In addition to the scientific aspects, I also discovered how physically strenuous fieldwork can be. Getting to a specific data collection spot would sometimes require an hour-long hike in extreme humidity. I enjoyed this element, however, because in the end, it was very rewarding; I was able to observe the amazing environment around me. I had the opportunity to learn so much about tropical rainforests by simply spending so much time in one.
I was not only fortunate enough to gain knowledge of fieldwork, but also, I found that I grew in another unexpected way. By living at El Verde Field Station, I made life-long connections with others from all over the world. It was an amazing experience to be able to live with other students also interested in biological research. I now understand how important it is to connect and collaborate with others in the scientific community. Ideas were easily shared, and I even had the chance to assist others on their groundbreaking projects. It was from these other students that my understanding of the world of academia began to grow. Some fellow researchers were in graduate programs; they shared their insights into pursuing a career in STEM education. It was from them that I learned; the process is extremely difficult, yet rewarding. Working in the tropics only made me more passionate about wanting to share my knowledge with others, and to take on this challenge.
This trip has been incredible; I feel so fortunate to have been able to experience this research endeavor. Traveling to Puerto Rico and having the chance to work in the tropics was very gratifying. The process opened my eyes to the many possibilities on what biological research has to offer, which allowed me to make important connections with other aspiring scientists. I look forward to using my new knowledge and experience to contribute to my continuing journey in the field of biology.
For the past few weeks, I have been busy with data collection. I have been working in both the field and the lab. Half of the day is spent in the forest, where gas samples and soil cores are taken; and the afternoon is spent analyzing soil in the lab.
Conducting fieldwork in the tropics has been an amazing experience. The day begins by locating trees on a ridge, slope, or valley that we had previously identified. Once found, leaf litter is cleared away from the base of the tree so the soil is exposed. We then place an airtight gas chamber on the soil. Every ten minutes, gas is extracted from the chamber using a needle and syringe before it is transferred to a vacuum-sealed glass vial. These vials will be brought back to the lab for analysis. After fifty minutes of extracting gas, the chambers are removed and soil moisture is measured. Additionally, we take soil samples back with us to the lab.
Being able to personally extract samples - to later analyze - is a very rewarding process. I have enjoyed spending everyday out in the forest because there is so much to observe, whether it be a lizard or an exotic plant. I have learned that fieldwork is a long process and requires many specific steps. For example, before taking gas samples, the syringes must be cleared three times away from human breath to ensure they do not contain any unwanted gases. Small details like this are very important to make sure the soil samples are as pure as possible. It can be difficult to keep all materials sterile, while in the field, because it is usually raining or tools get easily covered in soil.
In addition to learning new techniques in the field, I have also acquired new skills in the lab. Once the soil samples are brought back, roots are separated and the soil is sieved. This process can be a bit tedious because the soil has a clay consistency and must be manually pushed through. After sieving, both the roots and the soil are weighed before placed in the drying room. We obtain measurements, when the roots and soil are wet; and then, when they are dry. This process has taught me the importance of precision. The roots especially, are very small; and it is vital that all are soaked in water and included in the weighing process. The weight of the soil and roots will help provide information about the properties of the soil.
Being involved in a long-term project has allowed me to understand how the research process works. I have learned that it is a long procedure and requires many specific steps along the way. Over the next couple of weeks, we will continue to collect soil samples and analyze them in the lab. I am excited to continue the process and to keep practicing the new skills I have acquired.
My first month in Puerto Rico has been filled with excitement and new discoveries. I have had the opportunity to become accustomed to the nature and culture of this beautiful island. During the first ten days of my internship, I traveled to five different sites around the island with three other labs members. The purpose of this first portion of the trip was to collect annual tree size data for Professor Maria Uriarte. Everyday, we drove about two hours to a specific forest, and then hiked to locate a marked plot. Once there, we measured the diameter and dendrometer measurement of each marked tree. Each plot contained about 200 trees that were located on steep slopes, so the work was very strenuous. Despite the heat and hours of hiking, I feel fortunate to have been able to help with the data collection. I had the opportunity to witness different types of forests and towns around the entire island.
After the data collection was complete, we headed to El Verde Field Station where we are staying for the remainder of the summer. El Verde Field Station is located in the Luquillo Experimental Rainforest (LER) and sits adjacent to the El Yunque National Forest. The LER contains marked trees and is where we are collecting our data. Thus far, we have set up the necessities of the project. We have hiked into the forest to identify which trees we will use as soil sample sites. To provide for diverse data, we searched for trees of different species located all over the LER, and that are situated on ridges, slopes, and valleys. The LER is organized into a grid pattern so we are able to mark soil sites on a map, which will allow us to locate them later. After identifying these sites, we set up gas chambers. Next week, we will continue to set up four chambers at the base of marked trees to measure the gas contents in the soil.
In addition, we also measured soil moisture. This data will be useful because at some of the sites, we will moisten the soil before measuring the gas contents. Now that everything is set up, we will begin to take the gas samples and analyze the contents. It has taken a while to set everything up, so I am eagerly anticipating to get our first sets of data.
So far, it has been an incredible experience working in the tropics. Not only have I learned how to properly conduct research, I have had the opportunity to learn so much about El Yunque National Forest. Living at El Verde Field Station has been extremely beneficial. I have been able to learn about - and assist with - other projects. It is incredible to be surrounded by - and able to share knowledge with - other researchers who are also passionate about science.