Name: Carlie Hansen
Class Year: 2021
Major: Biology and Political Science
Internship Organization: Smithsonian Enviornmental Research Center
Job Title: Biogeochemistry Lab Intern, BMC-SERC Partner Internship
Endowed Internship Funding Award: Dean Karen Tidmarsh '71 Summer Internship Fund
Location: Edgewater, Md.
What’s happening at your internship?
This summer, I am interning remotely for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). I am a member of Pat Megonigal’s biogeochemistry lab, also working with Bryn Mawr Professor Tom Mozdzer on a few projects related to what are called global change factors. These include carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, artificial nitrogen inputs from roadway runoff or excess agricultural fertilizer, and rising sea levels, among others. My project specifically focuses on the organization and analysis of data relating to a long-term experiment at SERC’s Global Change Research Wetland, or GCREW. This is an Atlantic salt marsh ecosystem on Maryland’s coast, home to many species of plants, fish, birds, invertebrates, and more. I’ve been compiling data from an experiment that started in 2002, where researchers have exposed an Atlantic salt marsh plant, Phragmites Australis, to differing concentrations of carbon dioxide gas and nitrogen fertilizers in various experimental chambers. The experiment’s goal is to see what effect these inputs have on the reed’s growth rate, biomass, and nutrient uptake. I’m also working with data pertaining to an experiment to determine how well native versus invasive strands of P. australis adapt to rising sea levels, by measuring the height of the marsh over time. When marsh plants die, they accumulate on the marsh surface in mats of debris known as wrack, and because marshes are anaerobic. This makes them fantastic carbon sinks, and as such an important future area of research as we look to offset human carbon dioxide emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change.
Once compiled, I’ll use the R programming language to analyze the data for potential trends over time. This information will be applied to my senior thesis in biology, which as of now will look to quantify the rate of invasion of invasive species of P. australis as it relates to changing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and artificial nitrogen inputs. I also plan to use this data and subject area in my political science senior thesis. Environmental policymaking in the U.S. is not only influenced by institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, but can also be influenced by ordinary people. Citizen or community science is a huge part of SERC’s mission, where ordinary people who may not consider themselves scientists can assist in data collection on various experiments throughout the year. Even though the pandemic has prevented a lot of the community science that would normally occur this summer from happening, it’s been interesting to hear from SERC professionals about their experiences teaching people from all different backgrounds how science is conducted, and what role they can play in protecting ecosystems such as the one under study at SERC.
Why did you apply for this internship?
I applied for this internship to continue the research I began junior year in Tom Mozdzer’s ecology lab, but also to further my passion for ecology and the environment in a new setting.
My passions lie in the areas of science and politics, especially where the two intersect. I saw an opportunity in this internship to use the scientific knowledge and know-how that I develop over the course of the summer with regards to the interaction of various biogeochemical processes to think about the challenges facing policymakers concerned with sea level rise and climatic shifts. Generally speaking, legislative bodies and elected officials lack scientific knowledge themselves, with only seven percent of the current Congress having some background in STEM. This trend severely worsens at the state and local levels. As a result, there is a stalemate: scientists can’t communicate to policymakers in digestible terms, and policymakers lack the background to understand those terms in the first place or know what questions to ask. At all levels, this is a disparity that often results in ineffective science legislation that fails to address the goals it set out to. Throughout the summer I’ve had the opportunity to deepen my science communication skills, learning how to present information in the clearest manner possible for a variety of audiences. These experiences will be invaluable in my future career endeavors as I look to work in environmental policymaking after graduation.
The Smithsonian as an organization, but also SERC specifically, combined my interests in science and politics with their tradition of a commitment to knowledge and learning. I was excited by the potential opportunity to work in a place where many individuals with different backgrounds and skillsets come together to share their knowledge and collaborate on a shared goal. Interacting directly with an environment that looks to model potential futures of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will shape my perspectives on these issues as I look to address them as a policymaker or elected official in the future. I was also excited for the chance to conduct fieldwork for the first time, but the pandemic slightly derailed that excitement as my internship shifted to completely remote.
Was there anything special about how you found this internship?
I received Bryn Mawr’s partner internship with SERC by applying with a resume and cover letter for the position and funding through the Center for Career and Civic Engagement. It was exciting to receive the news that I’d be joining an incredibly talented and passionate group of Bryn Mawr students who had received the internship in years past. And especially given the circumstances, it was reassuring to know that because I had funding through the College I wouldn’t have to choose between an opportunity to explore my interests and taking a more traditional job to make sure I could meet my expenses over the summer and in the upcoming academic year.
Can you talk about the skills you are learning and why they are important to you?
In terms of hard skills, although I was unable to be physically at SERC for fieldwork out on the marsh, I’ve been learning a lot relating to data carpentry, management, and analysis. My internship has taught me how to more efficiently use Excel, and I’ve been learning a brand new skill, the programming language R. This language is used by people who work with data in all different fields, from ecology to politics, public health to the travel industry, and so many more. This will be critical for the analyses I will perform for my senior bio thesis this upcoming fall, but has given me a new appreciation for data and the various ways an individual can model it. The field of data science continues to grow in importance across all disciplines, and my experience learning how to manage and model data has and continues to impart the importance of accurately representing data so as not to mislead the consumers of said data.
Learning how to conduct science in a pandemic has been a new challenge for everyone at SERC. Despite the entire 30-plus intern cohort performing their internships remotely this summer, the full-time researchers and technicians at SERC must still work on campus in order to continue valuable experiments that have spanned many, many years. Through my participation in the virtual biogeochemistry lab meetings, I’ve had the chance to watch SERC’s plans for safe, socially distant fieldwork unfold. Science by its nature is extremely collaborative, and a pandemic obviously complicates how that collaboration occurs. The internship program coordinators, along with all of the SERC staff who we’ve interacted with virtually in some capacity, have provided the interns with an enriching, beneficial experience that has made the best of present circumstances.
Visit the Summer 2020 Internships page to read more student stories.