March 30, 2017

A summer of experience at the Queen's Biology Station

My SWEP oppourtunity in Elgin, Ontario

 A bird being tagged at the Queen’s University Biology Station

Contrary to my initial belief, waders — the waterproof overall type garment that fishermen use — aren’t invincible. 

You see, they have a rather large hole in the top — you know, where you insert your torso — and when you fall, for the 73rd time over the course of a day, this hole is submerged with icy swamp water.

At least, that’s how I found out waders weren’t invincible on my first day of work as a Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP) Field Assistant at the Queen’s University Biology Station in Elgin, Ontario where students have the opportunity to participate in fieldwork. 

Let’s take a step back and answer a few questions you may have. 

Why was I flouncing around in fishing waders in the middle of a swamp? As a SWEP student during the summer of 2014, I worked in the lab of Dr. Paul R. Martin studying songbird ecology. Specifically, we were studying interactions between song and swamp sparrows and how they’re closely related. 

How did I end up here? In 2014, I was finishing first year — which for any biology major means I could rhyme off every enzyme in the Krebs cycle, assure you that not all veins carry deoxygenated blood and, of course, the mitochondrion is indeed the powerhouse of the cell. But for anyone who isn’t a biology major, my point is, I didn’t really know much about birds. 

To be completely honest, before beginning my job I could confidently distinguish little more than a blue jay from a cardinal. What’s more, I’ve always had the goal of attending veterinary school, and never really intended on pursuing research beyond my undergraduate years.

Nevertheless, I applied for this SWEP position as I had a keen interest in ecology. It sounded interesting and I thought living at the biology station might be fun, so I took a risk to try something new.  

During my time at the station, my days consisted of waking up at ungodly hours, strapping on my waders and heading out into the field with my crew — comprising of three other students, all first-timers to field work. 

One of our main jobs involved maintaining the devices called song meters that were essentially large recorders meant to capture any acoustic interactions between our target species. We also mapped territories of birds — let me assure you, I had no idea birds even maintained territories prior to this experience — located and monitored nests  — which I will liken to finding a needle in a haystack, except that haystack is made of needles — and, my personal favourite, caught, measured and banded birds. 

At the end of the summer, we also spent time conducting vegetation plots, which involved classifying and documenting the vegetation surrounding a nest in an attempt to understand why a bird chose that particular location. For any science buffs reading, believe it or not, we actually used a dichotomous key for something useful.

Throughout this experience, I learned an incredible amount about biology, natural history and ornithology. With the guidance of Dr. Martin — who, I kid you not, can identify a bird based on a momentary blur of feathers from 30 feet away — we learned to identify birds by both sight and song and a tremendous amount about bird behaviour and biology. 

While it was only an introduction, over the course of only a couple months. I went from learning about the red-winged blackbird to having dreams that featured black-throated green warbler songs. 

I also learned a great deal about myself throughout this experience. For example, I can survive waking up at 4 a.m. I fall a lot more than the average person. I once took two steps into a marsh, tripped on a submerged log and filled my waders in less than a foot of water — and when it comes down to it, I’m not embarrassed to relieve myself while balancing precariously on a piece of flotsam in the middle of a swamp, surrounded by people I met only mere weeks prior. 

All joking aside, my summer working as a SWEP field assistant was a summer of extensive personal growth, discovery and character building. I uncovered a deeper passion for biology and scientific research. I was able to apply what I learned in first year biology to the real world. I was faced with challenges where I had to problem solve, prioritize and cooperate with fellow students. 

My actual experience with the job itself was only the beginning. I would like to take a moment to highlight the wonder that is the Queen’s University Biology Station (QUBS). Located about 50 minutes north of Queen’s, this facility, built on the shore of Lake Opinicon, is unique and world renowned. It provides an essential hub for researchers from around the globe to work. I found this community to be one of QUBS’ best assets. You can establish connections from numerous countries, working in diverse fields, studying an array of species from swallows to sunfish to spring peepers. But most importantly, you will make lifelong friends. 

The field crew I worked with that summer have become three great friends. It turns out spending numerous hours chest-deep in swamp is a great catalyst for bonding, and we still talk almost every day. I am so thankful to have met so many like minded, passionate individuals, with whom I would almost certainly not have crossed paths without this experience. As a first year, I was able to learn so much from the other students. I also had the opportunity to assist with projects outside my own. 

At the biology station, I was immersed in such a fantastic, natural area that supports an amazing diversity of wildlife. Over the summer, I was serenaded by cerulean warblers, derisively snorted at by northern river otters and threatened by an irate beaver when my presence in his marsh was less than pleasing. I serendipitously stumbled upon exquisitely camouflaged smooth green snakes, young fawns hidden in the long grass and, on one occasion, even a lactating fisher.

With these encounters, I developed an even deeper appreciation for Ontario wildlife. Summer 2014 was one of the best in my life thus far, and I owe it entirely to the SWEP program for making that possible. 

After such an amazing experience working in the Martin lab that summer, I carried on to volunteer in the lab back at Queen’s during second year. I was introduced to new people, contributed to new projects and attended weekly lab meetings. I continued volunteering in third year and went on to complete an independent research mentorship, where I inputted data, analyzed that data and wrote my own paper. 

This past summer, I was again working as a SWEP student in the Lougheed lab as a field and lab assistant in reptile and amphibian conservation. Most recently, I started my first year at the Ontario Veterinary College! I feel my time as a SWEP student really shaped my Queen’s experience as a whole and opened me up to so many amazing opportunities and individuals, and for that I am so grateful.

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