By Natalie Sahli, 2nd year MES student.
I entered the MES program over a year ago with little idea of what I wanted to study. At that time, Vibrio, a bacteria which colonizes shellfish during warm summer months, was an issue rapidly gaining traction throughout the sound. Oysters. Disease. Got it. Maybe I would study that at Evergreen?
In my first quarter in MES , I was lucky enough to have the chance to research the effects of Ocean Acidification (OA) on the shellfish industry though a biogeochemical perspective. I fell in love with marine chemistry! Not to mention, I was now on a mission to solve this problem through a sustainable solution (someone else will handle vibrio). When I proposed to my potential advisor that I wanted to start a kelp farm near oyster beds so as to reduce dissolved inorganic carbon, I was immediately shut down. Rightfully so. Too large of scale. Too much money. Oh, and it takes five to ten years to get a kelp growing permit in Washington. Okay, I guess I couldn’t stop OA in the Puget Sound, but could I add to a body of research which quantifies the ability of kelp to sequester dissolved inorganic carbon? Well, kind of, if I wanted to work on an eelgrass carbon sequestration project (eelgrass is a plant, so this was out). Okay, what about the aquaculture industry’s needs? Well, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) was interested in supporting a master’s project which investigated how cultivated clams exchange nutrients with seasonal macroalgae blooms. If there is evidence of a symbiotic relationship, these findings could help promote the co-cultivation of seaweeds and shellfish. Great! This was the perfect project for me.
Before arriving at Evergreen, I spent several years working in labs (throughout my undergrad and professionally). Hence, it was clear that my thesis research would include a significant lab component. One of my main questions prior to starting this research was of Evergreen’s capacity to support a lab-oriented thesis. I found that Evergreen is quite well-equipped with lab space, equipment, interments, and technicians. But methods development, I discovered, was one of the most challenging components of my thesis. In order to figure out how to answer my research question, I had to scour the current literature to find how professionals in my new-found field answered similar questions.
The overwhelming majority used stable carbon isotopes to measure the diets of shellfish, and carbon/nitrogen ratios to measure nutrient uptake by seaweeds. Simple enough. However, before I could even get to measuring these components I had to come up with an experimental design on a working aquaculture farm, a weekly sampling schedule, a method for proper sample storage, and request all relevant materials. The materials request was by far the most involved. There were so many components I failed to consider in my initial request: a petri dish in which to desiccate filters, a desiccator to store desiccated filters, combusted foil to store smaller pieces of combusted foil to store desiccated filters inside the desiccator (to name a few)! However, I eventually completed my design, obtained all materials, and started on my fieldwork after approval from my advisor and student instrumentation technician.
The Saga Continues:
After an entire summer of collecting data, I was left with a freezer-full of seaweed and manila clam stomach glands (not to mention a desiccator full of filtered phytoplankton)! I was considering using Evergreen’s carbon/nitrogen/hydrogen analyzer for my seaweed carbon/nitrogen ratios, but at about $150 per set of samples, I thought again. I was already planning to ship my samples out to UC Davis Stable Isotope Facility (a mass spectrometer is one of the few instruments not at Evergreen). UC Davis would return my samples with the isotope data as well as the carbon/nitrogen ratios. As I was already set to pay $8.50/sample, relying on UC Davis for my entire analysis was most reasonable. Evergreen offers a few grants for student research, but otherwise, your research is your own financial responsibility or you need to find outside funding. The grants available from Evergreen range from $100 to $4,000 per researcher [Ed. note: check out the Student Foundation Activity Grant or the Evergreen Sustainability Fellowship], but they only have a limited number to give out. Currently, I have been awarded $100 to help fund some of the sample processing costs. I am applying/awaiting responses from other grants. My research costs now total about $450 (not including purchases made from the Science Support Center, materials I purchased for the field over the summer, and the gas I used for the four-hour round trip to my site each weekend). This project will in the end cost me quite a bit of money. Would I do it again? Yes. Doing fieldwork over the summer was one of the most magical and rewarding experiences. I spent the summer collecting data on what became one of my favorite places on Earth. My project allowed me the luxury of camping near my site every weekend, and exploring the rivers, forests, and hidden bays of Washington’s remote peninsula. Additionally, I have learned an invaluable amount of scientific and industry information through this project. I am pursuing something I believe in and am passionate about. To me, this learning experience has been worth the cost.
Only a few months from the end of my thesis journey, I would like to offer advice to those of you wanting to embark on the scientific research journey at Evergreen.
- Start Early: It will always take more time that you think to finalize your research question, acquire the necessary background information to effectively design your experiment, and request all the necessary materials.
- Check in Often: Keep your advisor(s) informed of your progress and the decisions you will make along the way. Things will probably shift from your initial plan. It is important to ask for the help of your advisors when you have any question of how to proceed.
- Connect with External Agencies: External agencies will provide anything from relevant research projects in your desired field to lab space to funding. They are a great resource during this process and after graduation. For me, The PSRF provided a question, a site, clams, aquaculture materials, and continuing support for questions.
- Do a Trial Run: Before you measure anything in the field, set up your experiment, let it run, and collect test data. There may be a variable you did not consider once your experiment is in place. A trial run could help you realize this before starting actual data collection.
- Be Honest: If you are encountering a problem in the field or lab, let your advisor know. For me, the warm summer killed off much of my seaweed for almost a month! Oh well, this means I will have a lot to explain in my discussion. A thesis isn’t all about a perfect scientific experiment, it is about learning at a high level.
Overall, I have learned so much through my experience at Evergreen. Evergreen is truly an institution where you get as much out of the experience as you put into it. If you choose to go down the path of scientific research here, get ready to put in immense effort into your project. Though it may be hard to see the light when you are buried under this vast amount of work, try and stay positive. You’ll find that you’ll come away having learned more in the end.