“Well, we wouldn’t call it research if we knew where we were going or what were going to find,” my science mentor said to me during my first week in Boulder, Colorado. I didn’t know it at the time, but that turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of my summer internship.
During the summer of 2015 I participated in a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded program called Research Experience in Solid Earth Science for Students (RESESS), which is through an organization called UNAVCO. The goal of the program is to increase the diversity of students in the geosciences by pairing students with science and writing mentors to complete a research project over the span of 11 weeks.
My summer in Boulder was a roller coaster to say the least. The program I was in had pros and cons, and of course there were aspects I liked and disliked. One of the biggest challenges of the program for me was how intense and rushed the program is; the standards were extremely high. I was expected to design and complete an entire research project, write a paper, create a poster, and develop a scientific talk, all within 11 short weeks. Although the program was intense, I enjoyed the responsibility and the new challenges that took my work to the next level.
Due to our similar interests I was paired with a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Physical Science Division of the Earth Systems Research Laboratory. My mentor’s research focuses on increasing the usability of climate information to public land managers and policymakers. As for me, my project was under this same broad umbrella, but specifically my goal was to understand the role of climate change in natural resource management in the Western U.S through the comparison of State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs). Every ten years the federal government requires states to update their SWAPs, which address the states’ management plans and goals for protecting wildlife over the next decade. For the first time, in 2015, the states were required to address the potential impacts of climate change in these plans. My research project focused on trying to understand how these plans used climate information, what their climate science needs were, and how they can be improved.
One of the biggest challenges I ran into with my project was that I was constantly working with a moving target. I wasn’t always sure where my research was headed, what I would find in these policies, or more importantly, how to answer the difficult climate adaptation questions of how to manage land and natural resources in the face of a changing climate. For example, many of the states I studied have been hit with drought, wildfire, invasive species outbreak, and habitat shifting-all symptoms of climate change. My research asked the question of how these State Wildlife Action Plans were dealing with these issues through management, policy, and institutional changes which turned out to be a very dynamic problem.
Yet at the same time, one aspect of my project that I enjoyed the most was discovering something new that no one had before–the beauty of science and research. I found excitement in the fact that I was doing something that no one else in the world has done before. For example, I developed and coded a method for evaluating these plans based on the literature I had read throughout my research. This system I designed is something that had never been done before in climate adaptation and policy research, I found this to be an exciting and interesting challenge. Moreover, I found it rewarding that my research could potentially be used to improve future SWAPS, used by the DOI’s North Central Climate Science Center or the USDA’s Northern Plains Climate Hub, and ultimately better understand how we view climate change adaptation and natural resource management.
Looking forward, as I begin my fourth year at NC State, I now know with confidence that I want to work in big-picture climate change and conservation, aiming to bridge the gap between science and policy as well as creating usable science. Between weekly skills workshops on writing and communication, late nights editing my methods section, and early mornings analyzing 600-page policy documents at my desk in NOAA, I learned that the work is worth it every step of the way. I might not always know what the answer is to these big picture climate change and conservation questions at the beginning of the research process, but like my mentor told me at the start of the summer, if we knew where we were going we wouldn’t call it research. This summer has given me the tools and confidence to know that I am capable of solving these big environmental problems through intensive research, critical thinking, and dedication.