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Doing fieldwork is more than just academia

December 1, 2008

Science Happens (and Much More)

When Monika Maier ’09 was preparing for a month of fieldwork in the remote South Hills region of Idaho a year ago, she made sure to study-up on more than just crossbills, the birds they would be researching. She also prepared for the emergency delivery of a human baby. At the time, the assistant professor of biology who was leading the study, Julie Smith, was seven months pregnant. And Maier, on her own volition, was determined to be ready – just in case. Call it extreme extra credit.,

It didn’t come to that. Smith delivered her baby on schedule, after they all returned home.

In fact, the babe, 10-months-old, returned this past summer with Maier, Smith and Leif Hansen ’10, as they continued their research. No need for extra credit this year. The trip was largely uneventful, except for the random mid-June, tent-collapsing snowstorm, which, come to think of it, probably counts as eventful.

But that’s how it goes when you are conducting research in the field. There are long hours collecting data – in this case, of the crossbills and the lodgepole pine cones on which they feed. And then there are times when everybody is sitting around the campground, unwinding, talking about whatever comes to mind. After all, there is little pretense when everybody knows exactly the last time everybody else took a shower.

“I enjoy the relationships you can’t get otherwise,” said Smith. “When I was doing my fieldwork [as a doctoral candidate], I was alone all the time. There was nobody at night to share what you saw that day, to share what you learned. I really enjoy that part of the research.”

Maier agrees. “Research like this is all about the relationships,” she said. “Yes, we are working with birds out in the forest, but we’re really working with people. I realized that’s what I really enjoyed about it.”

These types of experiences don’t just happen in the South Hills. In the 50 grant-supported student-faculty research projects that take place at PLU each year, the situation is similar. Sure, there is the science – professors and students conducting research in the lab or in the field, side-by-side. But there are also the relationships that come with working closely together. Experiences like these are every bit as invigorating as the actual science.

That is certainly the case for assistant professor of chemistry Neal Yakelis and his research team. They work in a PLU laboratory, developing more efficient ways to make chemical compounds, those with less waste or chemical by-product. He sometimes refers to it as “green chemistry” for shorthand.

During the summer, Yakelis and his students – Mycah Uehling ’09, Jackie Lemon ’10 and Alayna Linde ’10 – worked 40 hours a week in the lab, each with their own chemical puzzles. Sometimes the solutions would present themselves; sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes Yakelis could help guide the students to an answer; sometimes they’d all be stumped.

At times the only thing that could be done was to head over to the professors’ house, make a stack of nachos and figure out how to attack the problem in a different way. Then they’d tackle it again, the next day, invariably with better results.

“It gives you a lot of confidence,” said Uehling, who was in his second year working with Yakelis. “Often when you solve something in a lab, anything you read in a book or encounter in a classroom is going to be no problem.”

It is what Yakelis likes to call taking ownership of a project. It is a good way to get students excited about chemistry. And that, as he sees it, is the ultimate goal.

“It is one of the things I really liked about working in the lab, as opposed to being in a classroom,” said Uehling. “We would be looking at a reaction, seeing something new and we’d talk about it. I felt treated as a peer.”

“Well, when we are looking at a new reaction, something neither of us has seen before,” Yakelis replied, “we are essentially peers.”

Associate professor of biology Ann Auman studies the microbial communities that live in the tree canopies of local Pacific Northwest forests. Soils collect in the small nooks high above the ground, and she’s conducting genetic analysis of the microbes that live in those soils.

She, too, works closely with student researchers on the project – she finds essential the work they do as part of a team. At the same time, she also knows that her work entails more than simply conducting research or teaching classes.

“In the lab, as I see it, I have two goals,” she said. “One is to conduct research. The second is to provide opportunities for students to see what it is really like to be a working scientist.”

Some of that, Auman said, is simply being approachable – sitting around a lab table, not just talking about science, but being a scientist.

“When I was younger, there was this idea that you’d get your Ph.D., your job, your family – and then everything would be perfect,” she said with a laugh. “It’s all good. But there is no endpoint. As a scientist, as with anything, you are working constantly – and it’s good for students to see that.”

That point was certainly not lost on Hansen and Maier, as they worked in the South Hills of Idaho with Smith’s growing family. And it wasn’t lost on professor Smith, either. Relationships are a two-way street.

“It is trips like these that remind me how much respect I have for students,” said Smith. “You see the discipline and the positive attitudes they have, sometimes during tough times, and it makes me want to apply that to my life.”

Tough times. Like a mid-June snowstorm, for example.

“It is those little memories I love,” she adds. “When things bog down around campus, I travel back in my mind to the South Hills, and it makes me laugh out loud.”