This summer, I left the warm embrace of Houston and embarked to work for the U.S.G.S. as part of a Field Intensive Summer Internship program at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Olympia, Washington. For three months, I experienced life in the northwest, and even got to try my hand at being an ecologist.
The project I was hired on as a field technician for was called the “ESRP” project, which was just one of many many acronyms I became familiar with over my time at Nisqually. ESRP stands for Estuary Salmon Restoration Project. Nestled in the Puget Sound, just south of Seattle, the refuge was established after privately owned farm land, which had been diked off to enable crops and livestock to grow, was given to the government. Part of the dike was then removed, in order to allow for the estuary to reestablish and the native wildlife to repopulate the area! The refuge was full of beautiful migratory birds and otters and, in the delta, harbor seals and even dolphins.On the refuge, the U.S.G.S. was given the opportunity to track one of these species — the Chinook Salmon.
Partnering with the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the U.S.G.S. conducted field surveys of different aspects of the Chinook Salmon ecosystem. We collected benthic cores to sample some of the invertebrates contributing to the Chinook food source, we did Neuston Net towing in order to collect water column plankton, we tracked vegetation growth near water sources and set up fallout traps to catch the flies that were flying and dying, (this was the quantitative equivalent from which we could extrapolate the flies that were falling into the river feeding the estuary, which the Salmon could eat). The Nisqually Indian Tribe, who has exclusive rights to the harvesting and sale of adult Chinook salmon, took samples of juvenile Chinook. The point of the project was to comparing the contents of the juvenile fish guts and the bugs that we collected, and create a map of the feeding habitats and behaviors of the salmon.
The field work was beautiful and a lot of fun. Most days our work on the estuary involved driving around a little Alumaweld boat loaded up with our sampling gear. Though I was around a bunch of ecologists all summer, I found out that they aren’t really that different from geologists (although I still maintain that geologists have more fun). And working as a field technician definitely has its perks. Not only do you get paid for being outside (every selfish scientist’s dreams!!) but the hours were flexible and we got to do everything in teams. Having a partner in anything makes it more meaningful, and a better learning experience, and about 20x more enjoyable. Most field technicians are usually bachelor-degree level, and scientists with a higher degree are the ones who are responsible for actually interpreting and preparing the information about the samples collected.
My only regret of the summer is I didn’t get to focus much on the geology of the area I was working. However, I did highly value the chance to expand my comfort zone (moving to a new city where I didn’t know anybody and creating a community for myself there), being expected to come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems (such as dropping our equipment in the water and having to fish it out, or yanking out water level loggers from sediment-clogged PVC housing, or jerry-rigging a way to measure water volume flow, all the way down to having to wedge mouse traps in our trucks on the refuge to get rid of the infestation). I look forward to how this summer will prepare me for the long hours and personal sacrifices of grad school, or for working a job after graduation. Anybody who is interested in getting paid for field work should look into working for the U.S.G.S! Feel free to shoot me an email or ask me more if this sounds like something you’d like to hear more about!