Learning the importance of interdisciplinary work: Reflections from an undergraduate researcher

Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) LTER 2019 undergraduate summer researcher, Ashlyn Royce. She wrote about her KBS LTER Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) project working with the Marquart-Pyatt Lab.

Ashlyn presenting at Mid-Sure, East Lansing, Michigan, July 24, 2019.

The summer of 2019 I was selected to work with Dr. Sandy Marquart-Pyatt and her research team through the Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, specifically working with the KBS Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Panel Farmer Survey. After accepting the position, I was a bit unsure of what to expect, but after my interview, and later on longer conversation with Dr. Marquart-Pyatt and her team I knew that this was the right fit for me for this summer.

Being an environmental science student, most of my experience has been either in the lab or doing field work, so I was curious to know what it would be like to work outside my field for the summer. Dr. Marquart-Pyatt is a part of both the sociology and environmental science department at MSU, which meant that I would have to learn more about a field less familiar to me. She and her team made sure that any questions I had were fully answered and helped me understand topics that I may not have been familiar with beforehand. This is where I started to understand why interdisciplinary work is important in any research field. 

What lead me to work on this project was the sheer amount of data that has been collected over the past few years – more than 7,000 observations!  The survey asks a wide range of questions to farmers in four eastern corn belt states – Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. By the time I arrived for the summer, there had been almost three years of data collected from the survey. I was eager to work with such an enormous data project, larger than any other project that I have been able to work on before, and to work outside of my home university for the summer. 

Ashlyn presenting at KBS Conference, Hickory Corners, Michigan, July 31, 2019.

One of the main goals of an REU position at KBS is to develop your own independent project with your mentor, and because of how big the project already was, I had a bunch of data to ask questions with. Soon after I arrived, I immediately delved into developing possible projects I could start looking into. Because of my initial interest in sustainable agriculture, I chose to work with questions that focused on farmers’ environmental attitudes and their uses of different agricultural projects that help alleviate the effect agriculture has on the environment. I was curious about this group of farmers’ environmental attitudes, such as whether or not they believe in climate change, and if they use or have changed their practices to be more environmentally conscious.  

Working on my project was exhilarating. There was so much data to work with and I wanted to take advantage of the panel aspect of the survey as much as possible. At one point I had all the separate years of surveys lined up in front of me trying to piece together my project with the questions like a big puzzle. After tossing out a few ideas, I eventually landed on a project that specifically looked at how farmer attitudes and practices are changing with climate change. 

KBS LTER Prairie Strips, Hickory Corners, Michigan, July 18, 2019.

Once I had a project down, I began to work with the data. This meant learning how to handle multiple years of data and learning a new programing language, SAS. With this project I was able to create two posters and present at three different locations, including the Rural Sociological Society Conference in Richmond, VA.

The whole summer was filled with new experiences that have helped me continue to shape the kind of future I want in terms of research interests. Working with this farmer data has shown me that American farmers’ environmental views are not as black and white as I thought they were. Not only did the majority of the sample that I worked with believe in climate change, but they also want to change their practices to be more sustainable but are constrained by what they can do by multiple things. I also learned that doing research sometimes means that we have to step outside our comfort zones and learn things that are outside of our fields because as a researcher you want to be able to tackle questions with as much information as you can. I want to keep this lesson of interdisciplinary work with me as I continue to pave my path as a researcher.