Hello! Michele here checking in for her final CLM blog for the Joshua Tree Genome Project (JTGP) from the City that Built the Hoover Dam.
Interning at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center has been a blessing. The past month has been a crucial time spent entering, organizing, and cleaning up the data we have collected over the past 6 months. We’ve been chipping away at this during the entire internship, but since we are all off to other adventures at the end of the week, we need to create a master spreadsheet for every Joshua Tree we have data attached to, along with explanations of our processes and organization. Let’s just say, I think all of our excel skills went from lowly merchant level, up to lord status. Note, I did not promote us to kings and queens because we still have yet to master pivot tables.
Seeing how the project progresses in the future, after we are gone, will be exciting to catch-up on later during our conservation careers.
This internship has taught me the trial and error that goes along with ecological research, and I am grateful to learn how to tackle and overcome these hurdles. Life in the desert has been all about adapting. Adapting to living in extreme heat, adapting to life with 3 other interns that I will be forever grateful for, adapting to a new position as a CLM intern, and adapting to the plot-twists that our Joshua Tree seedlings threw at us. All in all I wouldn’t change a thing.
The date is July 27th, 2020 in Boulder City, Nevada. The air, well over 100 degrees, feels like you’re standing in an oven on full blast. The roads are littered with tumbleweeds, like actual tumbleweeds straight out of a cartoon. Surrounded by a desert filled with coyotes, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas. This is what I walked into as a newly recruited intern for the Joshua Tree Genome Project at the USGS. After losing an internship due to COVID-19, I was desperate, scratch that, very desperate, to find work anywhere I could. Call it fate, divine intervention, or just dumb luck, I received an email late May informing me of a position open in a little town just minutes away from Las Vegas. So, I packed up my Jeep and made the 26-hour drive from Northwest Arkansas to the Mojave Desert, having no idea what I was in for. Little did I know that it would be one of the most rewarding and enriching times of my life. Over the past 6 months, me and my fellow interns have put blood, sweat, and tears into the Joshua Tree Genome Project. From breaking open pods and counting thousands of seeds in a basement, to working in a greenhouse until 2 am planting those same seeds, our time on this project has been nothing short of an epic adventure. We have spent countless hours mauling over massive excel datasheets, so much so that we began to dream about data, pivot tables, formulas, and Rstudio scripts. We spent days upon days camping in the desert where, much to my extreme delight, I was able to encounter the Mojave Green Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) for the first time. We camped under the stars and worked in the blazing heat, assessing the growth of plants that interns in previous years had planted. We met incredible people along the way, but none more so than Dr. Lesley DeFalco and Dr. Todd Esque. Dr. DeFalco and Dr. Esque, or as we now call them, Lesley and Todd, have been the most amazing mentors I could have ever asked for. Through their guidance and leadership, we have been able to achieve things I would never have imagined 6 months ago, and their attention to detail and effective communication skills have left a lasting impression on all the interns. They have been patient, understanding, unfathomably useful, and a joy to work with. I have nothing but praise for my fellow interns as well. Moving across the country can be a culture shock in and of itself, but add on three strangers from very different locations, the move can seem much more daunting. However, I wasn’t prepared for some of the nicest, smartest, and most hardworking group of people I would have the privilege to call my fellow interns. They have taught me so much and have been a great “quarantine” squad over the past 6 months. My roommate, Nick, has been a constant source of laughter, inspiration, and random nonsense, I a will look back at my time at 629 Avenue L fondly because of him. My time in the desert has been the time of my life. I have learned from experts, gained some valuable contacts, and made lifelong friends. I look forward to reading the papers that our work will produce, and I can’t wait to see how our findings are used in the future. Well, that’s all for me, I have lots of work to do, and my time in Boulder City is limited.
Thank you CBG and the USGS for a wonderful experience
A final salute to the JTGP is in order. This New Year brings about the end of our six month stint with the USGS in Southern Nevada and the Joshua Trees. We have tracked, recorded, organized and outlined the details and info of thousands of baby JTs and are now handing that package of data over to our mentors and the future group of interns, along with a greenhouse full of growing plants with shiny metal tags, ready for out planting into the common gardens.
This internship experience with CBGs CLM program was round two for me (did an internship with the FS in Idaho in 2019) and while my first internship was a fantastic opportunity in plant conservation, management and all things botany, this JTGP internship has been a superlative introduction and lesson in botanical research. It has been an incomparable hands-on experience involving research design, time-management and troubleshooting, data collection efficiency and a dip into the statistical world.
As an individual who is intending on graduate school (and the inevitable design and execution of my own work), this internship was a much needed segue into the world of big time botanical research. I am now aware of best practices for managing study plants and just how much time and thought must go into all research. I have also experienced the struggles, set-backs and wrong turns, and have learned how to approach them with flexibility and curiosity. And most of all, I have learned the true value of working in a team. My JTGP co-interns have been with me through every one of our planning moments, hiccups, and victories. I have realized how incredibly refreshing it is to discuss courses of action with individuals who think differently and I know that we have been able to accomplish all of the work we did these past six months because of the constant support and healthy challenging that occurred as we worked together with these plants.
I also have to mention that being mentored and guided by top-tier research scientists at the USGS has been so so SO awesome. Receiving endless guidance and confirmation from Lesley and Todd has helped me to better analyze and understand the flow of this research project. I have tucked away many gold nuggets of advice and suggestions for use in my personal and professional life. They have challenged us as a group, and me as an individual, to truly dig in and open myself up to the new experiences and lessons that the JTGP had to offer.
So, it is with pride and excitement that I close this desert flavored chapter of my life. I’ll be checking in over the years to see how the JTs are doing and am so grateful to the CBG and USGS that I was able to play a roll in this amazing research 🙂
In the time that I’ve been in Marlinton, West Virginia, I have learned so much about myself. And I’ve been able to challenge many of the thoughts and ideas that I had when I first came into this experience. Every single day, I grow more and more in love with the person that I am becoming, my true self. About two and half years ago (my last semester as a junior in college), I thought I’d take a gardening course because it sounded like fun and I wanted a break from the animal science course load. I had convinced myself for so long that I wanted to be a veterinarian. So, when that dream started showing cracks and I didn’t know how to fix it, I felt utterly lost and hopeless. Little did I know, when I took that gardening class, that the trajectory of my entire life would shift so abruptly and yet so perfectly. As serendipitous and exciting as it felt to realize my passion and to change my major, it was nerve-wracking to tell my family. A part of me wishes that my past self had a glimpse into my life now as it would’ve calmed the uneasiness of telling them. As stressful and disheartening as it was, I’d go through it all over again just to be where I am today.
MY CHOSEN FAMILY
Through my time here, I had been able to establish and nurture unique relationships with the people around me. From those that I worked with in the forest service to my co-intern, Caroline, and my numerous roommates.
However, the greatest connection that I made was with my roommate, Michael. Being the incredibly funny and cool guy he is, it was inevitable that we would be good friends. Our personalities clicked so well and felt complementary to each other that he quickly became one of my best friends and also like the big brother I’ve always wanted.
I find it necessary to highlight and emphasize the relationships that I developed during my program because they played a key role in how positive my experience was.
While I wasn’t subjected to overt racism, I did encounter microaggressions that left me feeling upset, singled out and alone at times. I would be lying if I said that I was surprised by it. It was rural West Virginia after all. Without their love and support, my time in Marlinton might have been sullied by those few awful moments. I feel incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by such kind and compassionate individuals who were always there to listen and be allies.
While my many friendships were indeed bright spots in my internship, the work that Caroline and I were able to do brought me excitement and so much pride. After having done one odd job after the other during and in between semesters, I had never known what it was like to do something that gave me purpose. Never had anything afforded me the feeling of being a part something bigger than myself. This program allowed me to grow and discover my spark. A spark that has expanded into a wildfire that fills me and pushes me to do more.
My future feels so much brighter now than when I first got to West Virginia, which feels like a century ago. While I’ve since left the state to spend the holidays with family and to head back to Florida, I’ll actually be returning a lot sooner than anticipated. Just two days before we rang in the new year, I was offered a position with Appalachian Headwaters, a non-profit organization that we worked closely with during our program to process and store our seeds for the forest service! I’ve been buzzing with excitement since and I cannot wait to see what is in store for me.
One week ago, I drove the rickety bridge over Brown’s Run for the last time. I turned right, past the field of ironweed and wingstem aster, past the horse pasture and the barn, then turned left toward Huntersville, heading east on Route 39. My 4Runner was packed to the gills, weighted down with several new additions since I arrived in Marlinton in July. Atop the center console was my newest friend, Moona, a young stray cat who adopted me on a camping trip at Tea Creek in late November. In my cooler was a bag of frozen foraged chantarelles, remnants of the final mushroom haul in October. Stuck between the pages of field guides and biology textbooks were pressed herbarium specimens of Dryopteris intermedia and Athrium angustum, which I picked up on a botany survey in September. Packed away in a small box at the bottom of the heap were botanical drawings of some woodland flora, which I made while memorizing species in August. I was driving away from Marlinton, loaded down with five months’ worth of gifts from my experience there.
Two of the most impactful gifts from this experience in the Monongahela could not be packed away in my truck. For one, I found a lifelong friend in my co-intern, Ivy. A top-class work partner, a talented biologist, and a supportive sister, Ivy brought immeasurable joy and depth to my time in Marlinton. We both arrived in Marlinton in July as strangers, in the middle of a pandemic, with little direction around how to begin our project. Together, we pushed one another to memorize local species and hone our botanical vocabulary, design and build a seed processing station in the bunkhouse garage, and process over 100,000 seeds. We drove for hours together, commiserating with one another about the state of politics, co-created botany career goals, and encouraged one another in personal growth. We belted the lyrics to classic tune, danced along roadsides while collecting berries, threw piles of rainbow autumn leaves into the air, and braced against winter winds together atop the Dolly Sods ridgeline. Ivy’s presence brought such delight, inspiration, and comfort to this internship experience for me. We plan to continue to support one another for many years to come as we dive into the next step of our botany careers.
The other intangible gift from the Monongahela was a clear vision of a career in field botany. Working at the Marlinton Ranger Station and at Appalachian Headwaters’ native plant nursery provided me glimpses into career possibilities that fit my skillset and interests, but none of those pathways captured my passion as did botany surveys. The first day I went out on a botany survey with the South Zone field botanist, Emily Magleby, I knew I had found my dream job. Before this internship, I had a glimmer of an idea of what a career in conservation and plant work would look like. Now, having shadowed Emily and the other botany technicians (Ken Hiser and Todd Kuntz) on botany surveys and seed collection days, I have had the opportunity to learn about multiple career paths that lead to the same end of working outdoors, with plants. Thanks to mentorship and story-sharing from these botanists, I now have a clear idea on how to refine my skills and knowledge in order to pursue my dream of outdoor, botany-focused conservation work. I can now streamline my career goals and build on precisely the skills I need to work as a field botanist.
With the new year swiftly approaching, I carry with me the gifts of the Monongahela, both tangible and immaterial. This internship experience has left me with a new cat, a solid career network, several mentors, a specialized set of botany skills, and a sense of clarity about where I will be headed. I am unusually enthusiastic about filling out job applications, feeling supported by my new people and finally qualified for the wide array of job possibilities that await me.
A huge thank you to my mentors (Amy, Cindy, Emily, Ken and Todd) and to Ivy for the learning experiences and encouragement during this difficult season. I couldn’t have done it without you.