Appalachian Laboratory internship helps kick off science career for young researcher

July 13, 2018
Abigail Reid in the laboratory at the Appalachian Laboratory

In May 2017, Abigail Reid, a student at Pawling High School in Pawling, New York, contacted Dr. David Nelson of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory about internship opportunities in his laboratory. 

“Would you be willing to work with an ambitious and responsible student on a research study?” she asked.

During the three-year Science Research Program, sponsored by Reid’s high school and the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), students like Reid develop research, communication, and statistical analysis skills while exploring scientific subjects of interest to them.  In their second year of the program, students find and work with mentors to design and carry out an original experiment and write a research paper based on the results. Reid, interested in learning more about renewable energy and wildlife, reached out to Dr. Nelson after reading some of his research papers online.  

“Earlier in the year, I had conducted an experiment with wolves in a zoo setting, and I wanted to follow that up with a project that focused on the impact of renewable energy on wildlife.” she said. “I also really wanted to have an experience in a laboratory setting. I read about Dr. Nelson’s work with golden eagles and bats and wind energy and was really interested, so I contacted him.” 

For his part, Dr. Nelson was impressed that a high school student not only took the initiative to contact him, but that she had also taken the time to read his work. 

“She sent a very compelling email,” said Nelson. “I receive these from time to time, but Abigail’s really stood out, especially because she had taken the time to read our work and ask questions.  She was genuinely interested and wanted to learn more.”

From that initial contact, Reid and Dr. Nelson continued to exchange emails until they had a suitable project for a week’s internship: determining if the singed feathers from birds killed at solar energy facilities were still viable in determining the geographic origin of the birds. 

Since water from different geographic regions has distinct stable hydrogen isotope values, scientists can use the isotope values found in bird feathers to determine where birds were drinking and eating when their feathers first formed. When birds fly near solar-energy facilities that utilize heliostats, mirrored devices that focus solar energy to towers, the high temperatures created in the solar beams can singe their feathers and lead to death. With experiments like the one Reid participated in, scientists are attempting to find out if these singed feathers yield usable stable hydrogen isotopes for analysis, allowing researchers to understand the range of the birds killed and inform wildlife management decisions.

Reid arrived at the Appalachian Laboratory in July 2017.  During her time at the Lab, she learned laboratory safety protocols and carried out experimental procedures.  She cleaned and prepared feathers for analysis; made observations about the physical appearance of the feathers; removed the control samples from each feather; placed the remaining feathers in the muffle furnace, a special front-loading furnace for firing samples at high temperatures; and removed the test samples. 

Later, Dr. Nelson analyzed the stable hydrogen isotope values present in the samples that she prepared.  Following the isotopic analysis, Reid re-entered the project from home, assisting Dr. Nelson and his colleagues, Hannah Vander Zanden (University of Florida) and Todd Katzner (US Geological Survey) in the statistical analysis of their data and in writing up the results. She also used the results in her research paper and in the two academic presentations she’s given since completing the project. Most recently, she presented findings at the 2018 joint meeting of the Association of Field Ornithologists (AFO) and the Wilson Ornithological Society (WOS) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she received an AFO Student Presentation Award.

Reid prepares samples in laboratory.

And what were those findings? The research team learned that feathers exposed to moderate heat were usable for isotopic analysis, but those exposed to high heat demonstrated reduced stable hydrogen isotope values, making them unsuitable for determining geographic origin.        

At the conclusion of the internship experience, Reid, who graduated this spring and will be starting at Cornell University in the fall, says she learned a great deal about laboratory procedures, statistical analysis, the publication process, and networking.  While at the Appalachian Laboratory, she also had the opportunity to meet with various scientists conducting research related to wildlife and to work alongside of University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) graduate student, Caitlin Campbell.  Reid advises high school students “to not be afraid” to pursue similar opportunities.  

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone and to face rejection.  Don’t be afraid to read research papers and ask questions about what you don’t really understand,” she said.

Dr. Nelson agrees.

“Contact people but don’t be disappointed if they say no. Try someone else. These opportunities are really good for helping students to build careers or feel out an area of interest,” he said. 

He suggests researchers should also not be afraid to say “yes” to motivated, talented students like Abigail. While working with high school students requires additional mentorship and scaffolding of the research process, such projects are often win-wins. Students benefit from the learning and the networking opportunities provided, and faculty have the opportunity to inspire the next generation of scientists, while also getting some needed assistance on current projects.

Based in part on the success of Reid’s experience, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science- Appalachian Laboratory is currently exploring options for offering similar internship experiences to area high school and undergraduate students.   

Abigail Reid, David Nelson, and their colleagues have submitted an article on their findings for publication.

Visit David Nelson’s webpage to learn more about his research.