This summer I spent eight weeks conducting field research at Mountain Lake Biological Station. As the name suggests, this station is in the Appalachian Mountains. A group of Swarthmore students, other undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, and professors populated the labs to study the surrounding wildlife. Working with a Swarthmore professor, I looked at the social behavior of forked fungus beetles in the field, and conducted data analysis in the lab. Spending eight weeks on a mountain seems a bit excessive, but there are ways to survive it—and you may just miss it at the end.
Go to the mountain for a good reason, so a week into it you are not regretting trapping yourself on a mountain for the summer.
When up on a mountain, isolated from society, with an unreliable wifi connection and cabins built in the 1920s, it is important to have valid motivation for putting yourself in that situation. If you get up to the mountain and realize it has been a mistake, it is much too late to turn back; you will therefore sulk in your own discontent as your peers enjoy themselves without you. If you instead get up to the mountain and realize you are going to have a life-changing experience, then you will leave the mountain happy with your own decision.
During my eight weeks, I had long nights in the woods, early mornings in the woods, and afternoons where I was just getting really sick of the woods, so I went back to the motivation that brought me there. I was training myself to one day do the same work as a career, to be able to trudge through the forest searching for animals and data of my own. I have always had a passion for animal behavior and field research and I was finally able to do it. Yes, there were terrible parts, and lots of bugs flying at my face, but there I gained valuable knowledge and lifelong skills. Which brings me to my next contention.
Learn something on the mountain, even if it’s just that higher altitude must be the reason you are so much more tired.
When you haven’t run on the mountain for the first month, you feel that you are slipping into a gelatinous state of laziness and frequent napping. So, you force yourself to run on the mountain and soon realize that it is extremely difficult. You blame this on the higher altitude and vow to stop all attempts to work out and enjoy your gelatinous state and your naps. However, you also justify your lack of exercise, outside of walking in the woods, by the lack of time you have because you are just way too busy learning STEM to put your body through the excruciating pain of only having one foot on the ground at a time for 20 minutes straight.
I learned many things and had many moments to learn that inhibited my free time for exercise. But the truth of the matter is that I learned so much more than I ever thought I would. I learned how to conduct field research, how to use R, how to label small beetles with needle-like sticks and four-point font, how to chop fungus off a tree with an eight-foot reaper, and how to drive an ATV on a dirt road. Simply put, I learned how to be a biologist. With the help of others on the mountain, I learned what life of a biologist actually looks like.
Make friends on the mountain.
When isolated on a mountain for eight weeks, it is important to surround yourself with people that remind you that you are not isolated on a mountain for eight weeks. Some say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer—but because most, if not all, of those enemies will be mice with hantavirus or bugs that attempt to get in your nose/mouth/eyes/ears and attack your limbs, it is probably best to stay as far away from your enemies as possible. Therefore, just keep your friends close.
That was easy enough to do as so many of the people at the station were intelligent, passionate, quirky, and lovable people. Together, we played volleyball, made s’mores, constructed boats, half-finished paint-by-numbers, and explored the great town of Blacksburg, VA. Having that community made it easy to leave behind the stress of lab, even just for those moments. Although my new-found friends helped me forget about my work, I quickly realized that I would not forget about the time spent together. Every helpful gesture, inside joke, and fascinating conversation would ultimately determine my experience on the mountain.
When it’s time to leave the mountain for good, miss it as you should.
When leaving the mountain, be happy to no longer be stuck on a mountain. You get to see your family again, your friends, it’s almost as if you were held hostage by the mountain. But, when leaving the mountain, you will remember the memories you made and the people you met and there will be a twinge of sadness as you realize those moments will be gone from the present…and that your home in suburban wherever is not as cool as the mountain.
Like any job, my job this past summer was work. To belittle that would belittle the effort I put into it. However, when I look back I don’t think about that effort; I think about the people I met, the things I learned, and what I accomplished. I realize how invaluable that experience was. So, even though it is nice to be off the mountain, I will miss it and all those that were stuck on it with me.