Changing directions (or finding the courage to move forward)

Thankfully my work ethic does not mirror my commitment to blogging! I have been hesitant to post for a couple reasons. First, I have not been doing any new research (and I originally envisioned this blog to be more research-oriented), but mainly I have not been ready to put into words my choice to leave graduate school with a Master’s.

There are many, many factors that contributed to my decision to leave. Those close to me have probably heard them far too many times (I tend to talk and talk and talk about things before ever taking any real action—a quality that I am constantly working on). Some may have been within my realm of control—others certainly were not (RIP funding for ecological research). Ultimately though, at this point in my life, I do not see myself as a professor or as an ecologist heading up my own lab, and 6+ years is far too long to spend preparing for a career that I do not want.

I have no regrets about coming to Berkeley, but if I could go back to my overly eager, ambitious senior year self, I would remind her of a few things:

  1. Taking a break from school is not a sign of weakness or failure.
  2. You do not need to have your life planned out at 21.
  3. Don’t settle for the practical, predictable choice.

I still have moments where I wonder if I am doing the right thing. I have always had this fervent desire to achieve, which has treated me well in terms of my academic success but sometimes gets in the way of my happiness. And then couple that with an occasionally paralyzing fear of failure. Failing my mentors. Failing my family. Failing myself. The more I reflect on "failure" though, the clearer I can see that by leaving I am not failing myself. If I were to stay in something that makes me unhappy and not give myself the chance to see what else is out there, then I would be failing myself (and my family, who truly bear the brunt of my complaining).

Berkeley has been one curve in my certainly non-linear life path. My path may be windier than most, but the point of life isn’t about reaching a destination anyway, is it?

/

year two already?!

Sorry that it has been so long since my last post! Juggling research, teaching, and classes is exhasuting to say the least. This year though I am going to do my best to share updates regularly, so hopefully I will follow through with that!

It is hard to believe that I am a second-year graduate student... hard because that first year went by so quickly and also hard because I still do not know exactly what I want to study. And that's scary. As much as I tell myself that is fine, that other people are in the same position, my brain does not want to agree. And so, here I am still reading papers and making color-coded flow charts, praying for divine inspiration (at least that's what it feels like).

I am happy to say that I have a great field site to start my research at (Richmond Field Station), which is serious progress! It has this amazing chunk of native coastal prairie (an incredibly endangered habitat type), and no one is using it. Yep, no one (except for me, of course). I spent a good part of the summer exploring the site and setting up a permanent grid so that I can conduct vegetation surveys in the spring when everything is beautiful and in bloom.

Although the site still has tremendous native plant diversity, it--like so many other native grasslands throughout California--is being invaded by aggressive non-native species. The worst of these at RFS is Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica). Like many native grasses, it is also a perennial, and not much is known about its effect on ecosystem services, which I hope to explore. There are also many questions stemming from how best to control it and what can be done to conserve the remaining prairie. The more time I spend at the site, the more interested I am in these restoration questions--which practices will be most effective... how will these affect the plant & invertebrate assemblages... how will this alter nutrient storage and movement in the soil...

Stay tuned for more updates as I continue to work at RFS!

Also, if you are interested in learning more about coastal prairie, I am sure I will write more in the future, but for now, I recommend checking out this website.

instilling "insect respect"

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of volunteering as part of the Bay Area Science Festival for an “Insect Respect” tour at Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center. The Bay Area Science Festival is the San Francisco Bay’s largest science education event, spanning a wide array of science and tech fields, and I highly recommend checking it out (there is seriously something for everyone!).

The night before the event, I was frantically cutting out and coloring flowers to use in a “waggle dance” game in the garden. And also fretting about how the day was going to go. I did not feel particularly prepared, and my late night crafting delirium was not helping. But then the morning of the event arrived, and I fueled up at Philz coffee shop (to which I may be legitimately addicted) before heading over to Half Moon Bay.

As children and adults trickled in, the Ranch Director (Dr. Virginia Bolshakova) asked about what traits make an insect an insect. I am not sure what I was expecting, but these kids knew so much about bugs! So much that I was both incredibly excited for the future of entomology and also more intimidated about my lesson.

With the fundamentals established, we moved on to stream sampling for invertebrates, filling out a “catch and release” survey to measure the biotic index of the water.

After lunch, another UC Berkeley grad student and I led the tour through the gardens and compost piles into the world of pollinators and decomposers (obviously my favorite). Our “waggle dance” game had a few kinks, which I suppose is expected for a trial run of something novel, but hopefully it got the kids thinking about how bees communicate and forage without words. To finish up the tour, we sifted through the compost, searching for insects that break down the organic material.

 Sifting through the compost to find decomposers.

Sifting through the compost to find decomposers.


Graduate school can so easily become all-consuming, so participating in events like these that take me away from the bubble that is the Valley Life Sciences Building is both cathartic and personally fulfilling. Interactive outdoor learning experiences are invaluable for ecological education, and places like Elkus Ranch are paving the way for widespread investigative science. Although ecology gets (incredibly) complicated and surprisingly quantitative (thank goodness for statisticians), many brilliant questions and studies start with a simple observation. Maybe a plant keeps cropping up in the same part of your yard. Or only one type of plant in your garden is visited by aphids. Often, these observations are far from brilliant. But without them, we would be stumped and stuck.

Getting people, especially young students, to engage with nature in this way is critical. But to do this—to stimulate curiosity about our planet's patterns and processes, we need to promote exploration and engagement of the natural world. Science is a dynamic process, an experimental method that provides us with the tools to question, to learn, and to question some more. Nothing about science is insular or neat (Berkeley has a great page about "Understanding Science" that hints at the overwhelming complexity of the discipline). Ecology is particularly messy (and wonderful) because nature is not predictable and does not always do what you want or expect it to do.

It took me until college to fully appreciate and engage in ecology—to become “Dirt Girl.” Although I don’t regret my pre-med inclinations in my early years, I wish I had been exposed to ecology sooner. Because honestly, if it had not been for my exceptional undergrad courses and research experiences in Prof. Meyer’s lab (and also the unwavering support of my parents), I may have kept plodding down the medical school path for fear of going against the grain. Hopefully, by helping with programs like those hosted by Elkus Ranch, I can keep other Dirt Girls and Guys from staying hidden for so long. And after watching those kids get soaked in the creek searching for bugs (one girl even took home a water sample to look at with her own microscope) and enthusiastically picking through compost, I am hopeful.

the descent into decomposition

768 litter boxes later, I did not expect to be planning another litter decomposition experiment. Sure, I loved working on my thesis (hooray for multiple interaction effects and p-values less than 0.05!), but it was a demanding process. I spent weeks of the summer heading into senior year of undergrad making these boxes. Alone at the field station (surprisingly, I could not convince any friends to join me). Listening to episodes of my favorite sitcom play. Interrupted from persistent cutting and sealing of mesh by Netflix notifications (yes Netflix, I am still watching). Throughout this process I kept asking myself: What have you gotten yourself into?

And then I’d remind myself that science is rarely (and honestly, should not be) easy and that I am doing something I care about—something that will help us parse nature’s complex patterns and hopefully improve the current (and future) state of our planet.

Litter decomposition experiments do have their practical advantages. First, you are working with dead plants, so you don’t have to worry about living things acting up and ruining an experiment (except for those pesky coyotes and woodrats in the field). You also have an initial stretch of several weeks where you do not have to do anything. That was a blessing during fall semester of my senior year. Then, once I started collecting boxes, the real work began. Processing litter is tedious (unsealing the bags, picking out anything that fell in, weighing, milling, muffle furnacing, running the elemental analyzer). Doing this 768 times was no walk in the park. But by the time I actually started to analyze my findings, everything was put in perspective yet again. I was doing real science and getting real (significant!) results. Even if I had not gotten significant results, my experiment still would have been valuable. That is part of the beauty of ecological experiments—not seeing anything happening can be as (or even more) interesting than fulfilling a prediction.


Still, by the end of my thesis, I was wary of doing anything rooted in decomposition again. My first major graduate school task has been working on my NSF-GRFP (Graduate Research Fellowship Program) application. (Note: If you are interested in attending graduate school for the sciences, check it out!) For these grant proposals, the goal should be high-reward, and erring on the side of high-risk may not be detrimental. So I needed something creative with the potential to benefit society and science itself. When I arrived at Berkeley, I started researching potential topics for the GRFP that did not include a decomposition component.

Figuring out an interesting topic and one that no one has looked at before is challenging work made all the more frustrating when the review article you’ve been reading does not have any recommended future directions. I thought back to my previous research and honed in on plant invasions, but invasion biology has become an incredibly broad, diverse field in the recent years, so that did not narrow the search much. Also, one of the tricky parts about ecological studies is that the study system is critical. Most of my experience has been in Southern California, and although there is some overlap with the Bay Area, there are several critical differences. Dozens of articles and a few books later, I realized I needed to start organizing my thoughts before I was too overwhelmed to make any progress. I color-coded lists of broad topics of interest, potential study systems, etc., and tried to connect everything in a moderately coherent way. As I did this, I realized I had written “decomposition” and “nutrient cycling” without even thinking about it.

 

I guess I can’t escape it. And I don’t I want to.