Richard Johnson completes summer internship at Appalachian Laboratory

August 23, 2021

In May 2021, the laboratory of Dr. David Nelson at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science welcomed Garrett College student and U.S. Army veteran Richard Johnson for a 12-week research-focused internship.

“It has been an experience of a lifetime for me. I only wish it was not ending, “ said Richard Johnson upon completion of his internship experience. 

While at the Appalachian Laboratory, Johnson  worked with Dr. Nelson and graduate student and fellow veteran (U.S. Air Force) Jonathan Johnson (no relation), in an ongoing project designed to learn more about how forests in the distant past changed in response to  long-term changes in climate and fire. As part of this project, Dr. Nelson and his colleagues extract and analyze fossil pollen found in core samples of sediment that accumulate in the bottom of lakes, identifying how the plant species that were present on the landscape during the past 12,000 years changed through time.

The presence, absence, and abundance of pollen from different species in the collected samples provides clues to scientists about what may have been happening to vegetation in the area at the time. For example, when pollen is present in samples dating to an earlier time but absent or greatly reduced in samples from later periods, scientists know that the plants that would have been producing that pollen were declining in number or disappearing altogether. They then try to understand what may have happened to cause a decline. In eastern North America, changes in climate and wildfire frequency are potential causes for shifts in vegetation.

Johnson assisted in identifying and analyzing charcoal found in sediment samples to help in determining if wildfires had occurred. In addition to his work on the charcoal analysis, he also had the opportunity to analyze and interpret those data with guidance from Dr. Nelson and Jonathan Johnson. Richard also read and discussed journal articles and book chapters and met with researchers working in various areas of environmental science at the Appalachian Laboratory and at Frostburg State University.  All of these experiences were designed to give him greater exposure to different scientific disciplines and to enable him to explore possible career paths. 

“This is my first time working in a lab setting, and there’s so much new to learn and experience,” said Johnson. “I watched the documentary ‘Breaking Boundaries’ on Netflix a few weeks ago, and it really connected in my mind with the work I’m doing at the Lab. I understood the documentary in a much deeper way thanks to my time here.”

As for advice to other undergraduate students who may not think research-focused internships are for them? He recommends taking a chance and trying something new.

“Try it. Open yourself up to new experiences. I never thought I’d be doing real-world scientific research in a laboratory. You’ll find that you can do things you never thought you could do,” he said.

Graduate student Jonathan Johnson agrees. “Imposter syndrome, feeling like you don’t belong or that academic work isn’t meant for you, is very real, especially among veterans. From my personal experience, things don’t get easier, but you get braver the more experiences you try. Experiences like these can help more veterans learn about and enter STEM-related fields, and I’m really proud to be part of that.” 

Each summer since 2018, the Appalachian Laboratory has hosted an undergraduate intern from a local institution of higher education. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Appalachian Laboratory to take a break in summer 2020, plans are in place to continue and grow the internship program in upcoming years. To learn more about past interns and their projects, visit Updates on future opportunities will also be posted on this site. Contact Rhonda Schwinabart, Coordinator of Outreach, at 301-689-7102 or, with any questions.

Richard Johnson is currently enrolled in the Natural Resource and Wildlife Technology program at Garrett College. Financial support for Richard's research experience was provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation as part of award #1855822.