By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Three University of California undergraduates will be conducting their own full-time field research projects this summer as part of the UC Natural Reserve System’s Field Science Fellowship.
This year’s fellows will get first-hand glimpses of what it’s like to be a field scientist while studying vegetation succession, lizard colonization, and stream biodiversity at three NRS reserves.
“All of these students are really impressive people,” says Erin Marnocha, the NRS’s Director of Research and Education. “We’re so happy to be able to support their research, and hope they come away from their projects inspired and better equipped to pursue careers in the sciences.”
The program exposes students from backgrounds underrepresented in the field sciences to research in topics such as geology, environmental science, and conservation research. Students pair up with faculty mentors to submit proposals for research based at one or more NRS reserves. Successful applicants receive $5,000 student stipends and $1,000 toward research expenses.
Launched in 2020, the Field Science Fellowship is funded by the Samuelsen Conservation Scholars Initiative, which supports NRS diversity and inclusion efforts. The initiative honors the first director of the NRS, J. Roger Samuelsen.
When UC Los Angeles undergraduate fellow Bianca Ryans learned about the Field Science Fellowship, the impacts of wildfire seemed a natural topic for her to investigate. Living at the suburban edge of the San Fernando Valley, Bianca Ryans had already experienced many blazes firsthand.
“Fires come through here at least every three to five years,” the third-year ecology, behavior, and evolution major says.
The instructor of Ryans’ ecology course, Gary Bucciarelli, suggested they team up to apply. “She did a fabulous job in the class and had been coming to office hours. I thought, she’s asked such great questions and is so interested in local ecology that this would be a perfect opportunity for her,” Bucciarelli says.
Bucciarelli had already been surveying stream biodiversity in the Santa Monica Mountains for much of the past decade. Half of his field sites burned in the Woolsey Fire of 2018. Comparing the stream species in burned and unburned areas blended both his and Ryans’ research interests.
“She just went to town writing the proposal. I’m a pretty picky editor, but she did an incredible job drafting what I feel was a graduate-level proposal,” Bucciarelli says.
Having never tried field work before, Ryans is eager to get her feet wet this summer sampling stream invertebrates. She’ll base some of her field work and analyze her specimens at the NRS’s Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve, where Bucciarelli is director of research.
Ryans is also looking forward to working more closely with her mentor. “Talking with him I never feel like he’s the superior and I’m the student; it just feels like a conversation. And every single step of the way he teaches me something new. I love that,” she says.
Lizard outlook at Lassen National Park
There’s a lizard incursion happening at Lassen National Park, and Field Science Fellow Ishana Shukla will be on the scene to document the event. A UC Santa Cruz senior, Shukla will be following the sagebrush lizard as it spreads into territory once held by a competitor, the pygmy short horned lizard. At the same time, climate change is encouraging the spread of invasive cheatgrass, potentially limiting the new lizard’s ability to move in.
Shukla will be gaining the skills she’ll need to complete this project from her project mentor, UC Santa Cruz professor and herpetologist Barry Sinervo.
“Lassen is very vulnerable to climate change. The sagebrush lizard is an indicator species. Based on how this lizard is reacting to this tug of war between climate change and colonization, we can see whether conservation management needs to step in before anything else happens to the more vulnerable species in this imperiled area,” Shukla says.
Shukla will be among the first researchers to use Lassen Field Station, a partnership reserve between the NRS and Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Shukla says the Field Science Fellowship will be an ideal way to complete her learning as a science student at UC, and provide an edge as she applies to graduate school. “It will give me a chance to be mentored under one of the most amazing people in this field, design my own experiment, carry out my own field plans, and really tie together my learning as an undergraduate,” Shukla says.
Plotting a long-term plant study
Angie Wu says the courses she’s taken as a molecular environmental ecology and physical geography major at UC Berkeley have given her a solid theoretical foundation in science. However, the second-year student hasn’t yet gotten the opportunity to work in the field.
That will change this summer, when Wu heads to the NRS’s Sedgwick Reserve to establish vegetation plots for her Field Science Fellowship.
“After learning about all of this in class, it is really exciting to finally be able to apply that knowledge out in the wild,” Wu says. “I think this will be a great opportunity for me to dip my toes in the world of research, to see if this is something that I want to do in the future.”
For her fellowship, Wu will establish long-term vegetation monitoring plots at the NRS’s Sedgwick Reserve. The plots will reveal how variation and climate affect vegetation and plant physiology in the Santa Barbara area.
“I’ll be helping to collect different physiological plant measurements to tell us how the plants are doing at the beginning of summer, when there’s not much water stress, and at the end of summer, when there is more water stress. Then we can see how the plants have responded seasonally, both within and among species,” Wu says.
Although Wu herself is a Cal Bear, her mentor on this project will be UC Santa Barbara professor of geography Anna Trugman. Wu has been helping Trugman analyze data on several research projects since last year. To date, however, the two have not met in person.
“It will be cool to finally meet her. She’s been a really great mentor so far, and I’m really lucky to work with her,” Wu says.
Being at Sedgwick will also give Wu the chance to benefit from the intellectual synergies of field station life. “I want to learn as much as I can, not only from Anna but also other researchers who will be at Sedgwick doing their own projects. These people are at the top of their fields, and it’s super humbling to be able to work there with them and learn from them.”