Image courtesy of Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment (TRACE)

At Mac, students get the chance to do the work—seventy-six percent of recent graduates reported doing an internship or research during their time as an undergrad, and sixty-seven percent participate in community-based learning, volunteering, and/or applied research. Student research is supported by, and oftentimes collaborates with, experts at the top of their fields—the same professors that sparked the idea in the classroom. 

One of those students, Nibia Becerra Santillan ʼ25, had the opportunity last summer to play with water to understand the role of humidity in soil gas production and exchanges with the atmosphere as part of her internship with the Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment (TRACE) project in Puerto Rico. 

Nibia’s work aligns with other TRACE questions that are looking into the interactions of soil moisture and gas production from the soil and into the atmosphere. Her project will facilitate future experimental designs by answering some basic interaction questions.


The project:

There were three main things that attracted me to this project: the first one was working on greenhouse gasses that are of extreme relevance with climate change and our global context. 

The second was to be able to conduct research alongside scientists who are local to the area that is similar in cultural context [to my home country of Peru], and who speak my mother tongue. There was something really empowering in seeing myself doing science in this environment because I felt that me doing science in my home country is more of a reality. 

The third was the mentoring aspect of embarking on this project with Professor Christine O’Connell. Although I did not have any previous interactions with her, from the interview I could sense how committed she was to helping me come out of this experience feeling like a complete scientist. And she did. The trust she put in us as a team and as individuals was invaluable. She made sure we had clear goals and helped us develop strategies that worked towards feeling accomplished. I gained a lot of confidence in my skills and also my work overall. Christine was not only our principal investigator, she was our mentor even when online. I deeply admire and respect that. The best thing for me about this project was feeling agency throughout the process thanks to the amazing mentors and team around me.

The subject: 

The thing people get wrong about this subject is how greenhouse gasses are portrayed. Nowadays they are mostly understood as inherently negative, however, they are essential in all forms of life. Specifically our project on greenhouse gasses did not focus on the problematic anthropogenic interactions, but the natural interactions in an ecosystem. In fact, greenhouse gas fluxes were the markers of how diverse factors impacted the soil, and therefore in theory, the microbial communities. In my project, I focused on the impact of disturbance on the response of soil/microbial communities to extreme rainfall events. 

The most surprising discovery so far was that in my individual project, we learned that disturbance does impact the response of soil/microbial communities to extreme rainfall events. The results evidenced that “normal” levels of CO2 and CH4 fluxes were achieved within the time frame of my experiment only for the “least” disturbed area. There is more research to be conducted in order to have a clear understanding on the how component of this project.

A typical day:

A typical day on this project would involve waking up before 7:40 a.m. to make it to the general meeting with the whole in-person TRACE team at 8:00 a.m. Before the meeting, the Macalester team would have someone warming up the LICOR analyzer and smart chamber. We would get updates from all the different teams that work at the site and also joint projects such as the seedling census and general trainings. We would divide, and on a day when I was going to the field, we would carry the analyzer and chamber with us. Usually two people went to the field at the time, and we would take turns with the weight and the data collection. (Also, three things that were essential to this research: a write-in-the-rain notebook [best invention for tropical forests], LICOR equipment, and a water bottle!)

While we measured, I got to move from the most shallow conversations to really getting to know my teammates. There is something about being soaking wet (because we just got rained on) while we gossip about pop culture in Vietnam and Peru, or talking about a dear friend we both have at Mac, or receive advice on how to choose a PhD program. 

Because water was very unreliable (as a result of the lasting damages from Hurricane Maria), we would rush into the shower. The Mac team loved to have joined meals, so we would eat all together with the team and have a crash course of US pop culture, but also general global knowledge and trivia! I know more random facts about Iowa than I would like to, but I loved it. When I organized trivia, people would be studying about Peru because they knew I could not resist asking at least something. We would divide into two groups and have fun names, and even some staff members would join us. 

Going back to work, we would have a slower afternoon if we went to the field in the morning. I would usually work on my R-code for processing my data (or as part of my program to improve at R that Christine helped me develop). Otherwise, we would read the paper assigned for the journal club or join general tasks. We would get out of work at 4:30 p.m., and usually we would chill at the residency and debrief with the other residents about our day or relevant events. Then, we would usually cook dinner with my two Mac friends—two of us were apprentices when we arrived, but we improved a lot as time passed! Finally, we would go rest. I generally would call my parents back home or watch a Peruvian cooking show that would inspire next week’s meals.

There were so many incredible days, but if I was to highlight one of them, or a group of them, would be the initial LTER Annual Conference. I learned so much—not only about the science being conducted in the area, but also the efforts that were being made to make science more accessible and productive to local communities, and how scientists’ paths can be so diverse. I felt inspired and motivated, not only by the biology/chemistry/geology scientists, but also the educators conducting science and incredible projects reporting on their processes as well. Seeing a community of science that is not only about writing papers and getting recognition, but also about generating knowledge that is valuable and makes our community better, was so uplifting.

January 3 2024

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