A visual tour of my path to the Nicholas School

Greetings! In preparing my blog, looking forward toward my PhD here at Duke, I got to reminiscing about the fantastic experiences I’ve had in research up to this point. I want to begin my blog by taking you on a walk through some of projects on which I’ve been lucky enough to work, and the nearby beautiful places in which I’ve frolicked.

As an undergraduate at UW-Madison, I worked as a technician for Erinn Powell, a graduate student in Prof. Ken Raffa’s lab.  Her research investigated how two types of disturbances (fire and bark beetles) interact. I also worked on my own research project during the summer, investigating some of the signals that cause bark beetles to aggregate when attacking trees. My project unfortunately failed due to an exceptionally early emergence of adult bark beetles. While a failed experiment is a pain, I think it was something good to experience early in my career; I learned from the start that science is a fun, but sometimes cruel, path. Anyway, here are a few photos of research and beautiful landscapes from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where our research was conducted:

endless pines

A seemingly endless extent of pine trees.

Burned pine stand

A stand of pine trees that burned during the previous summer.

Hanging out with our

Hanging out next to our "fake plastic tree" - a funnel trap in which bark beetles are caught for counting.

Bark beetle tunnels and frass

Peeling back the bark of a lodgepole pine that has been attacked by Mountain Pine Beetle reveals the tunnels they bore under the bark, and the smaller, perpendicular tunnels in which eggs are laid and larva develop.

Yellowstone thermal feature

One of the joys of forestry fieldwork in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: pretty thermal features.

Yellowstone hot pool

A jewel toned hot pool in Yellowstone National Park

Sunrise over Jackson Lake

Another perk of waking up early for fieldwork in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park - the view over Jackson Lake from our field station.

Green River sunset

Sunset over the Green River

Paintbrush Canyon

A picturesque view of Paintbrush Canyon

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I traveled to New Zealand, where I spent several months volunteering on organic farms and for the Department of Conservation (DOC).  With DOC, I worked for six weeks to help build an aviary for soft release of captive raised Kokako.  Many of the birds in New Zealand, which evolved in an environment lacking land mammals (for the most part), have suffered greatly with novel introductions of mammals such as stoats, rats and feral cats. Fastidious control of mammalian pests, along with intensive monitoring and captive breeding, is giving birds such as the Kokako and Kiwi (which I helped radio tag as a reward for hauling parts of the aviary up slippery hillsides) a chance to rebuild their populations.  I also worked on a project at the University of Canterbury in which we studied the effects of stream size and riparian management in response to land use change.  While most of this fieldwork involved scraping cow pies off of the equipment we’d deployed in the field, I had a great time, and this work allowed me to fund tramping trips to the mountains (a few photos of which I’ve included for the sake of gratuitous landscape awesomeness):


Flowing water - it's great.


In the Hamilton Zoo, a Kokako, the type of bird for which I helped build an aviary with DOC.


A brief photo with a kiwi before changing its radio tag.


Changing the radio tag on the leg of a kiwi.


Temperate wet forest in the North Island.


Black tree fern; now that's a fiddlehead!


Taking a break on a hike through Minchin Pass.


Taking a break from hiking upstream to be nerds about aquatic insect larvae.


A view of Aoraki/Mt. Cook with some flowing water in front.


Tiny sundew in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. Carnivorous plants are too cool!


A gorgeous valley viewed from along the Routeburn Track.


A tarn among the clouds.


MacKenzie Lake and valley, on a hiking trip along the Routeburn Track.

Megan Fork

The joys of fieldwork in Canterbury dairy farms: rain and cow pies.

Finally, I wanted to give you a brief visual taste of some of my masters’ fieldwork.  My thesis project asked how dissolved organic carbon (DOC) of varying source and concentration affects nitrogen cycling in rivers of northern Florida.  I found that rivers with higher concentrations of DOC are more likely to have carbon-limited denitrification (a microbial process that converts nitrate, a major pollutant that leads to eutrophication in many waterways and coastal oceans, into atmospheric nitrogen gas), due to a lower biomass of labile-carbon-producing aquatic plants.  For those who want a more thorough explanation, please feel free to check out my thesis on the Florida International University digital commons.  In these pictures, note the amazingly clear water of the spring fed rivers (low in DOC, and what there is coming mainly from aquatic sources), and the mirror like reflections and incredibly dark stained water of blackwater rivers (high in DOC, which is mainly from terrestrial sources).  Altogether not a bad place to spend one’s field days:


Relaxed canoeing downstream in the Rainbow River. Not a bad way to spend a day!


Picturesque morning panorama of the Rainbow River.


Vegetation in the Rainbow River. Extremely clear water and stable flow allows spring fed systems like this one to support very dense beds of macrophytes like this one.


Cool formation in the karst banks of the Ichetucknee River. The Floridan aquifer is made of this limestone karst, resulting in very cool and complex flowpaths.


When I do fieldwork, it's usually about this graceful...


Lower Rock Spring Run. The headwaters of this waterway are spring-fed and very clear, but along its length, the river picks up a lot of DOC of terrestrial origin, staining the waters like a strong cup of tea.


A view of the lower Wekiva River. This river, like the Rock Springs run, picks up a some colored dissolved organic matter over its length, but this river supports fairly dense beds of vegetation.


Dark waters and mirror-like reflections of cypress in the Withlacoochee River.


Very high concentrations of colored DOC in the headwaters of the Withlacoochee River means the water attenuates light very quickly.


Mixing of clear water and dark-stained blackwater at a confluence of these two types of rivers.


Sediment sampling in the blackwater Withlacoochee River.


Glamorous sediment samples - what this photo cannot capture is the lovely sulfurous "rotten egg smell" often associated with anoxic sediments.


A pretty view of Blackwater Creek.


Fieldwork in northern/central Florida - watch your head!

So those are some of the experiences that have led me to the PhD program at Duke. As I continue with my blog, I’m planning to share some of my opinions, observations, and musings about the process of graduate school and of science generally. I want to help communicate about how the process works and how scientists think (though thinking like a scientist is still very much something I am learning how to do) because I feel that the world has a deficit of science literacy.  My task to you, dear reader, is to call me out when I’m being obtuse, biased, or just plain wrong.  Please help me become a better science communicator!

Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned!


3 thoughts on “A visual tour of my path to the Nicholas School

  1. Awesome photos and blog post, Megan! Thanks for taking us along on your journey to PhDeep. Also, New Zealand holds a very special place in my heart, so let’s exchange stories about our experiences there sometime!

  2. Megan,I really enjoyed reading your blog! Sounds like brains kind of run through our family’s veins. My parents travel all around the world and still insist New Zealand is the most beautiful place on our earth! Good luck with all of your endeavor’s! Kristi Smith Kramer

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