A summer I will never forget: Reflections from an undergraduate researcher

KBS undergraduate summer researcher Christopher Williamson is a senior at Clemson University. He wrote about his Research Experiences for Undergraduates project working with mentor and LTER researcher Dr. Jen Lau in her lab at KBS. Williamson was funded by an NSF REU site award to the Kellogg Biological Station. ~~~~~~~~~~~~

KBS REU Christopher Williamson (far left) with friends at the KBS Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Well, what should I say? It wouldn’t be enough to say that this has been a great summer, that I have made lifelong friendships and have had a delightful research experience in which to add to my resume. Now while this may all be true, it’s lacking, both in depth and detail and isn’t something as clearly understood in words as in experiencing it for oneself. But unfortunately, whoever is reading this is unlikely to have experienced a wonderful summer at KBS and so I will do my best to describe what I consider to be unutterable. Let’s begin with the people; I believe that I can speak for most of the undergrads, Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) students, Undergraduate Research Apprentices (URA)’s and scholars alike when I say that the diverse and pleasant group of people made living here for the summer more than enjoyable. Often, I would find myself talking with some of my fellow REU’s about our projects during breakfast, and later discussing my project with graduate students as we canoed along Gull Lake in search of bluegill and largemouth bass at night, sometimes in the same day.  I think this has helped me to not only develop a great project but also to grow as a researcher and individual. I hope to continue to communicate with all the people I have meet for as long as possible.

While the people played their part, I would feel this post to be lacking if I didn’t mention the environment in which we lived. Set in a rural setting and surrounded by attractive fields with deer and turkeys at every corner, with rustic barns and buildings spread throughout, the surrounding area complements KBS well. But, for me I think the best area has been the nearby nature trails which transitions from a beautiful wildflower prairie to a charming forest. Within this trail I could often find myself looking out across a beautiful dock watching as the dragonflies go from lily pad to lily pad in a sort of whizzing and darting dance, while just below tadpoles the size of small fish would swim patiently as they slowly matured before my eyes over summer. Or I would watch curiously as beavers swam to and from a dam that had now covered the entrance to the dock, but evident from the recently gnawed upon surrounding trees, likely to grow larger still.

Exploring Michigan.

Coming from the south with little time spent up north there was plenty I had yet to see but luckily KBS organized a host of trips to show what the Midwest had to offer. I think for me the best ones were the trips to Lake Michigan. Several times over the course of the summer we went to different parts of the lake and each time we saw something new. With each experience, we learned something new about ourselves, the people around us and the world in which we live. I think the best part was the sand dunes. I remember a time when we tried to hike to the end of the dunes, there were dunes for miles leading to the lake and we walked as far as we could, but before we knew it time ran short and we were left with a scene of the sunset cast over the lake. I would like to think the hills were a metaphor; which showed that we should treasure the ups and downs with the people around us before time runs out, something which I feel we accomplished.

Finally, the guidance of my mentor Dr. Jen Lau during the summer helped to lead me one step closer to my career goals. In our research project, we studied the rates of decomposition in different native and exotic grass species. To test this, we placed litter samples in heating rings for the summer and the results showed that exotics tended to decompose faster, which is an important finding as exotic plants continue to spread. Working on this experiment with her she proved to be a reliable and trustworthy teacher. Along the way we also developed a great relationship, and she provided me with plenty of learning opportunities. I think the most valuable lesson I learned from her was confidence, something that she showed throughout the summer whether we were in our meetings or at the lab discussing my research project. I now look ahead to my future positively because of her influence and wish everyone who reads this will have a chance to experience this wonderful place and great cast of researchers.

A view of Gull Lake.