What leads a person to science? Who will follow in the footsteps of today's professionals? These are critically important questions for natural resource managers. "Explorers of the Underground" in this issue profiles three earth scientists—two geologists and a hydrologist. Written for Young Naturalists, the story aims to encourage young people to explore science careers.
While researching her story, Lisa Westberg Peters found other geoscientists with fascinating specialties. One was Amy Myrbo, a limnogeologist who studies lake basins. A researcher at the National Lacustrine Core Facility (LacCore) at the University of Minnesota, she created a job description for herself that includes outreach, diversity, and education.
Myrbo spends a lot of time thinking about and practicing ways to hook students on science. In 2009, after lengthy discussion, LacCore and the Fond du Lac Band launched the Manoomin Project, a five-year study of six wild rice lakes. Myrbo and her colleagues trained students, faculty, and resource managers at Fond du Lac in how to take core samples of sediment from lakes. Lab analysis of sediment uncovered lake history during the past 10,000 years. It showed where and when wild rice grew most abundantly. And it revealed human and climate influences on lake depth, temperature, chemistry, biology, and other properties.
Sediment core sampling was hands-on work—"hand-powered, all muscle," Myrbo says. From atop lake ice in winter, three or four people pushed a plastic tube through a hole to the sediment. They pulled up the first 5 feet of mud, then cut and capped that piece of tube. They plunged the tube back into the hole to retrieve the next 5 feet. When the going got too tough for plastic, the team switched to a metal tube. After 10 to 15 meters, they reached the bottom of the lake sediment.
In the LacCore lab, the students pushed segments of the muddy mix out of the tubes, scooped clumps into a sieve, and rinsed away sediment to find needles, leaves, and seeds—signs of ancient forests and other vegetation. Seeds of wild rice would have been rare because the aquatic grass seed sprouts in water. To find evidence of wild rice required analysis of phytoliths, microscopic silica bodies that form in some grasses. Two kinds of phytoliths exclusively indicated wild rice.
The project's results had direct application for lake management. For example, one lake currently has abundant wild rice and high phosphorous content. Core samples showed that some 9,000 years ago the lake also had plenty of natural phosphorous and wild rice. That finding settled the question of whether resource managers should try to reduce phosphorous levels in those waters.
The Manoomin Project exemplifies how science can engage and inform a community. At Fond du Lac, science camps and other mentoring have helped guide students to further education. Those who pursue science have the potential to become natural resource managers caring for tribal lands and waters.
Science ought to be an endeavor open to anyone, Myrbo says. Students may need help to become comfortable in an unfamiliar environment. For instance, consider field camp for geology students. This basic training requires several weeks of camping while doing fieldwork. A lot of geologists grew up hiking and camping in the country, Myrbo says, but "I was a city kid. I had to learn to love the outdoors…as an adult, as a grad student." To be better prepared to encourage prospective geology students, high school science teachers or counselors could attend a field camp. For students with mobility, hearing, or sight impairment, college educators need to figure out how to make field camp accessible.
The student who follows a straight line through education to career path may be the exception. Aspiring scientists tend to be perfectionists, Myrbo explains, but they need to realize it's OK to fail and come back and try again. "We need imperfect role models," Myrbo says. "There are many ways to be a scientist."
Kathleen Weflen, editor