We are a group of freshwater ecologists from the Biology Department at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota studying the effect of temperature and nutrient availability on metabolism and nitrogen fixation in geothermally active streams in the Hengill region of Iceland. This is a collaborative research effort with our partners from Montana State University, the University of Alabama, the University of Iceland, and the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries in Iceland. See links to our collaborators labs below.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

10,000 New Ways to Think

Research is a process - it is about discoveries, about making mistakes, taking risks, trying new approaches, and sometimes starting over. We always learn from our mistakes and new approaches, gain some knowledge from the risks, and start over while remembering where we went astray. Thomas Edison once said about the process of inventing the light bulb, “I haven’t failed.  I've just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” This is the part of research that I love.  I can go to work every day and not necessarily accomplish what I set out to do, but I will have learned something meaningful, even though it may not be what I expected. After days of preparation, packing, and test runs, you get up at 7 am, drive an hour to get to your field site, set up, and run an experiment, and the outcome may be totally unexpected; but, that doesn't mean that the day was a failure.  In fact, through this process of trial and error, we find better and more efficient ways to make our measurements, and ultimately, the outcome and science is better for it!  This process leads us to question our approaches and always be thinking about the unexpected. There are no rules for figuring out an answer, or guidebooks that will tell us in which direction to start. This is why research is such a creative process and requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to think in new ways.

One of the most rewarding experiences that I had this summer was the opportunity to design my own experiment and take charge of all of the details. Curiosity drives research, so I had to first ask myself, what am I curious about?  After the course of a couple weeks in the field using three methods to measure nitrogen fixation, I asked myself, why can’t we use just one method, or what are the advantages and disadvantages of each method, and what can we understand better that will convince us of the accuracy of these methods? Then, I had to devise an array of field measurements using each of our methods that would provide some insight into where the discrepancies between the methods lies. The first day that I was in charge of the field team, I was running on adrenaline, not knowing what the results would reveal, or how the day would go.
I was counting and numbering vials, double-checking supplies, and packing extra everything, just in case. I was the one who had to delegate the tasks and provide the itinerary. I made some mistakes, and miscounted a few vials (which turned out to be a great learning experience in and of itself), but at the end of the day, it was a great success.  I felt accomplished.  We had new and novel data that will help us to better evaluate the methods for measuring nitrogen fixation, which will be an important contribution to the field.  It was gratifying to complete a portion the large international collaborative project that I had designed. It gave me confidence in relying on myself and my own ideas, and brought even more questions to my attention that I hope to pursue in the future as I continue to do more research.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How Did It Get So Late So Soon?

Thumbs up for science!
It’s hard to believe that we are back in Minnesota already. I cannot believe how the time has flown.  It is great to be home, but I found myself having a hard time leaving Iceland. There is so much left to do and experience! I look forward to the day when I can return. The field days are over for now, but the fun in the lab is just beginning.  We were able to accomplish so much this summer and I am looking forward to running samples, as well as analyzing and interpreting the data this fall. 

Four months ago, I would have never dreamed that I would travel to another country for the summer and be able to do cutting edge research with a gorgeous backdrop.  The days were long and sometimes the weather didn't cooperate, but I never felt like I was going to work. I enjoyed the challenges that we were faced with every day and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that no matter the obstacle we faced, we were able to overcome it and find our own creative solution.

One of the final times working with these chambers.  
Oh, how I miss them!

Before this trip, I will admit that I was hesitant and unsure about my abilities as a scientist. This experience has given me the confidence to know that sometimes, more often than not, something isn’t going to work, but I also know that I will figure out how to make it work.  Yes, that is the research process in action and I have a much stronger understanding of the scientific process and the creativity and trial and error involved.

I led an entire research project out in the field this summer; a task I would have never sought out. Prior to this experience, I found myself reading journals and protocols never asking WHY the authors did something in a particular way.  Now, I finish reading an article with more questions than when I started reading.  I think more critically and thoroughly now.   This experience has given me the confidence to understand complex biological processes and has encouraged me to pursue research further. I am excited to begin working with our samples in the lab this semester. I'm eager to see what stories they have to tell us!