Summer Research Gives Biology Students a Close-up View of the Field

Most scientists studying the Olympic Peninsula’s Hoh Rainforest spend their time looking up, as the Sitka spruce and western hemlock in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve can reach more than 300 feet tall. But this summer, Puget Sound assistant biology professor Carrie Woods and two of her students took scientific inquiry in a different direction. They looked down, peering at the Hoh’s most intricate specimens hanging from branches and growing on fallen logs.

“We had what I call our ‘moss goggles’ on,” Carrie says. “We’ve discovered something that no one has really gotten at yet because we can identify the mosses.”

Anna Marchand ’19, taking notes as she rappels down one of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve trees she, fellow researcher Kaela Hamilton ’20, and their professor, Carrie Woods, studied this summer. Photo courtesy of Anna Marchand and Kaela Hamilton.

Over the course of three weeks in July, Carrie and biology students Kaela Hamilton ’20 and Anna Marchand ’19 lived at a research station in Forks, Wash., four hours from campus. In humid, mosquito-infested conditions, they rappelled from ancient trees and crouched on the forest floor, always keeping their eyes on the tiny, green details. For Anna and Kaela, the work served as a realistic glimpse into what their futures as scientists could hold.

At Puget Sound, summer research projects provide students from a variety of disciplines with their first real research experience in the field. Faculty mentors like Carrie play an important role in not only guiding student discovery, but integrating students into every aspect of science, from writing grant proposals to tackling the challenges posed by working in a dynamic natural environment.

“In summer research there is no guarantee that your project will work,” Anna says, explaining that the trio went into the Hoh Rainforest with the goal of surveying three trees and gathering 100 samples from 50 small plots to take back to the lab. “We finished one tree and 20 plots, and we worked so hard for those 20. The research develops as you’re doing it. It’s interesting to see what direction it actually takes.”

That’s the nature of the work, Carrie says. She recalls an experience with a former summer research student who was also studying moss and, upon seeing the Hoh Rainforest for the first time, reimagined her project on the spot. “It was an amazing moment, because it took a lot of courage to say ‘I want to go in a different direction.’ I allow that. You have to have that flexibility.”

Keeping an open mind allows for “observation-based hypothesis development,” which Carrie says is key for scientists. “That’s the experience. You’re there, you see something novel, you think it’s interesting—let’s go for it.”

That way of thinking, and her own first experience in the field as an undergraduate in Ecuador, is what got her hooked on biology research. “Finding something I found interesting and pursuing it on my own is what really led me here,” she said. “I want that experience for my students, and summer research provides that.”

Back from the field with samples gathered, Anna and Kaela will present their findings at the annual Fall Student Research Poster Symposium in September. Both students have a newfound respect for the field.

“You only read the success stories because that’s what gets published,” Anna says. “You don’t see the 10 other projects that researchers tried and failed before they got to that paper. Summer research is a good test of whether you can be a scientist. Can you handle that failure and pick it up and try a different direction and have that flexibility? This is a really good environment to see if that’s you.”