Aug. 2014—Conor Gearin, a senior at Truman State University, spent the summer of 2014 in a learning environment that elicited hands-on participation studying the water chemistry of ephemeral wetlands in Maine known as vernal pools. The internship was a natural extension of his chemistry class at Truman, which featured an environmental science lab. Gearin, who had studied dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus in a creek as part of his classwork, found he was well-prepared for the internship at the University of Maine-Orono.
Gearin notes that crucial wildlife habitat is not always a large river delta or grassland. “The vernal pools are small, but they have an importance disproportionate to their size,” says Gearin. These pools, which fill up with snowmelt in the spring and dry up by the fall, are critical to the life cycle of several amphibian species — including frogs and salamanders — which depend on the vernal pools for breeding.
Working with his research team, Gearin explored these important wildlife habitats taking water samples at vernal pools across an urban-rural gradient, sampling at urban sites in Bangor, Maine, and relatively remote sites in Hancock County. He also made use of his dual biology-English major by becoming a writer for the project’s blog, “Of Pools and People” (http://ofpoolsandpeople.weebly.com/blog).
Through his participation in the project, Gearin saw first-hand how important it is for researchers to build up a relationship with the public. “The faculty and graduate students at the University of Maine have spent years cooperating with residents of Maine who own the land containing vernal pools,” says Gearin. “They have done an excellent job of explaining the importance of vernal pools to landowners and creating practical but effective conservation strategies,” says Gearin.
He also discovered that, when working the field, mosquitoes and blackflies can be vicious. “We wore mesh bug jackets and vinyl gloves in the field to protect ourselves,” says Gearin. “If we took these precautions, we could avoid most bites.”
Gearin’s internship was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Coupled Natural and Human Systems (NSF-CNH) program, and while these positions can be quite competitive, Gearin thinks they are worth pursuing. “You get to work outside studying wildlife or the environment, doing a small part to improve our understanding of the changing natural world,” says Gearin, who also enjoyed having a chance to work with other undergraduates, including a civil engineering major. “Completing an internship in a field outside your major can help broaden your experience and perspective on your career,” says Gearin.
Internships often nurture a student’s excitement for the field, and Gearin, who plans to pursue a career in science education and communication, hopes his internship experience will lead to more opportunities to do field work. “The research and science writing experience I gained have reaffirmed that I want to work on science questions that directly impact people and to help in communicating scientific discoveries to the public,” says Gearin.