The Science of Nature – The Nature of Science

Today at work I spent the day with 80 young girls from Project Scientist, a summer camp for girls interested in STEM fields. We went on a nature hike, built model buffer zones as water filters, made leaf rubbings, and played field games. At the end of the day the girls had a chance to ask us questions about our jobs and interests. The questions were sweet and thoughtful and generally fell along the lines of “who inspired you to become a scientist?” “what’s your favorite part of your job?” and “when did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?”

I spoke about my love of being outdoors and the mentors I’ve had both at school and in my work without too much deep thought, but as we wrapped up the day and the campers loaded onto their buses, water bottles and lunchboxes in hand, I was struck with the realization that I had, at least to a certain extent, achieved my childhood dream. While many of the goals I had as a young girl have absolutely not come to pass (everything from competing in the Olympics to starring in my own musical show about how much I love snack time), I had just told 80 young women that I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember and now I am. I had told them that my childhood idols included Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson and now I too hold a degree in environmental science. Of course, I have a long way to go – many more years of school ahead of me and countless frustrating research projects still to come – but I had never before stopped to call myself a scientist and bask, even momentarily, in that achievement.

I feel pretty lucky that I get to apply all the knowledge and skills that I spent four years collecting at Davidson to my work every day. Many of my peers left Davidson to enter worlds of finance, consulting, and business that may or may not be completely unrelated to their fields of study in school. Of course, that’s the magic of a liberal arts degree. We learned the skills necessary to succeed anywhere. We learned to write, to think, and to be critical so that we could go on to be leaders in anything we chose to pursue. There’s nothing wrong with that. For me though, there’s something special about being able to explain the process of eutrophication in simple terms to a group that’s come to spend the day paddling with us on a Thread Trail Blueway or to teach a school group how to identify native plants and remove invasive ones. When my co-workers talk about forest management techniques, I can lean on my ecology classes to help me keep up with their conversation. I have the daily opportunity to take my theoretical knowledge, gained in the classrooms and labs of Davidson College, and put it to work in the field as a Carolina Thread Trail Impact Fellow. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I don’t know at what particular moment one becomes a scientist. Was it when I received a microscope kit as a birthday present and took to examining every leaf, blade of grass, and insect I could find in minute detail? Was it when I walked across a stage in front of Chambers and someone handed me a piece of paper with the letters B.S. stamped on it? It was probably somewhere in the middle of those events. I can’t point to the exact moment but somewhere in the midst of tromping through the woods to collect data, creating endless excel spreadsheets, and this moment now so close to the end of my fellowship, I became a scientist.

I am a scientist. And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of that.

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