Summer Field Research with a Swat Professor: A Dive into the World of Professional Biology

One of the reasons I decided to come to Swarthmore was because I knew I wanted to do biology research as an undergrad, and so I’m pleased to say that I have been spending my first summer in college as a research assistant to biology professor Vince Formica at Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia. I always had some interest in trying out field research, and when I saw him present his research in the fall, I knew that I wanted to join his team. I met with Vince after his presentation, talked about the research, submitted an application, and got invited to spend the summer doing research at the field station. Even though I only just finished my first year at Swat, I was able to get both a research position and a summer stipend from Swarthmore.

Old growth forest at Mountain Lake Biological Station

The first few weeks at the station were a little hectic trying to learn everything all at once, but it was also really fun and the perfect environment for a budding biologist. I’ve learned so much here about research, the wildlife around the station, and careers in biology.

I’ll start with what I’ve learned about research so far, since that’s what my main goal was for the summer. We’re studying the forked fungus beetle, which lives on and around fungus in old growth forests. Getting lots of good data involves a lot of time spent in the field, which I had expected, but can be really tiring at first.

A courting pair of forked fungus beetles, found during a night scan.

Three days a week, I go on a morning scan with two or three other people, starting at 6 a.m. and going until we finish scanning all our populations, which can take about four hours. Three days a week, I go on a night scan with two other people, which starts at 9 p.m. and can go until 1 a.m. sometimes. There are also afternoon scans throughout the week, which are from 2 p.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. Overall, I spend a lot of time in the woods looking at logs, but it’s exactly what I had hoped for. There’s also time spent in the lab processing beetles and working on independent projects, which I’m in the process of developing now.

Salamander spotted during night scan

Even though I’m focused on researching forked fungus beetles, I’ve also learned a lot about the other wildlife around here. While in the field, I see all kinds of other bugs, deer, chipmunks, and lots of salamanders. I also had the unique opportunity to touch a rattle snake! Apparently, one of the traditions at Mountain Lake is that the herpetology class will catch a rattlesnake if they find one, and the director gives a demonstration. snakedemo.jpgOnce the snake is safely held and has its face stuck in a plastic tube, people are invited to feel the snake and its rattle and ask questions. I did, in fact, touch the snake and got to ask lots of questions about physiology and evolution related to rattlesnakes.

Besides getting to see a rattlesnake safely in person, another big plus to spending the summer at a research station is that I have talked to a lot of different biologists and learned about their careers paths. Strange as it may sound, talking to current grad students, PhD candidates, and professors makes pursuing biology beyond the undergraduate level seem a lot less daunting and much more possible. I really appreciate being able to link science to actual people with personalities and goals, and I have had many such opportunities from spending the summer here.

I expect to learn and experience even more, but so far I have already enjoyed it so much and learned more than I ever could have expected.

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