My STEP Signature Project involved the collection of data from a stream sampling site along the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, WA. Two large dams were removed from the river during the beginning years of this decade, and I collected some basic water quality parameters with the aid of a sampling sonde. This data was then used in a comparison study to historical water quality data at that same station before and during dam removal to see how the river is changing.
Going into this project, most classwork and projects and I have worked on throughout my life were highly structured. Part of my intent in pursuing this research was to gain some experience in the process of formulating a research project and all of the logical and logistical challenges that go with it. I would have to do all of the background research, data gathering, problem solving, design work and equipment rental myself, to name but a few things. This is in stark contrast to most schoolwork, in which the labs and assignments are neatly pre-packaged for you in that all of the relevant information and procedures have been provided for you. Through this project, I was able to gain firsthand experience in the practical application of the knowledge I have been taught in class.
One of the main things many people my age likely lack adequate experience in is logistical skills. During the planning process for my project, in which I was designing my experimental procedure, I had little understanding or feeling for how much margin of error needs to be built in during the planning phase, especially with regard to time critical components. The particular piece of equipment which I decided upon using for my project, the YSI ProDSS, is prohibitively expensive to prurchase, leaving renting as the only viable option. As a fairly niche and high-end product, there aren’t many places which rent such an item. Luckily, one such place is located right here in Ohio, in Fairborn to be particular: Fondriest Environmental. My flight out to Washington was scheduled to leave on a Wednesday in August, and so I had planned to take delivery of the sonde on the Saturday prior to leaving in order to ensure it would have adequate time to arrive in case of any delays or unforeseen mishaps. Additionally, the extra time would allow me a few days to familiarize myself with the instrument, ensure it was calibrated properly and I could do so again accurately in the field, and figure out the best way to get the whole messy setup through the airport.
Sometime about a day or two before I was due to receive the sonde and calibration standards in the mail, I got a call from Fondriest saying that they did not have the sonde yet because the prior renter had shipped it back via a slower method than was expected. I had already been assured that I would have it by that Saturday, and had indeed paid for that to happen, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled. However, I was assured it would arrive at my house by the day before my flight, and the price was adjusted accordingly. Nonetheless, I received another call the day before saying it still wasn’t there and wouldn’t arrive at my house in time. After a great deal of hair-pulling on my end, haggling with them over pricing and alternative methods of receiving the equipment, I had to drive back down to Fairborn from Cleveland to pick it all up.
Aside from the crash course in rental logistics I received, I also gained invaluable experience and insight into the design of scientific research experiments. It is one thing to design a project in theory, and another entirely to do so in practicality. When I was deciding upon what water quality parameters to select, it was pointed out to me that I would have to use parameters similar to any data which had already been collected. Matters became much further complicated when it became apparent to me that much of the data was not readily available in the public domain as I had assumed. Rather, it had been collected by the private engineering firms and contractors hired by the various government agencies charged with removing the dams. Most public data was extremely scattered, minute in sample size and often used different measurement techniques if it was repeated at all. Furthermore, much of the research was more focused on the biota of the streams, the rejuvenation of which was the goal of the dam removal. This was to be attained in part by an improvement in water quality, which was what I was trying to study. However, many universities were more focused on the direct consequences of this, the end result if you will. After much searching, I was able to find suitable data from the State of Washington Department of Ecology. This data was all focused at the same site, not spread out over many sites as I had originally planned, once again forcing me to adapt my plans to reality.
In my future work, no matter the field, I will be forced to deal with challenging circumstances in a variety of forms. This project was instrumental in giving me an idea of the other types of adversity I might face in my line of work other than just how to solve an integral. Making realistic and well-informed plans and designs, working with difficult organizations, adapting when things do not go according to plan, knowing where to look for information. These and many other skills are just some of the things I learned from this project, things I may not have learned until later in my career were it not for this experience. Being forced to start from scratch and make these decisions myself, along with gaining a better understanding of the amount and type of work that goes into developing such a project, will make me more likely to succeed in a similar situation in the future.