The (wo)Man Behind the Curtain: Part 2


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Authored by Natalie Claunch

It seems as though I have awakened from a dream and suddenly found myself in a new, foreign place. All the anticipation, struggles and work leading up to this moment seem just a blur. I find myself walking out my door and feel almost blinded by the shining goals and expectations I have set, and I can feel all the eyes watching me. It’s sensory overload.

Some of the eyes I meet are familiar while others belong to entirely new people—professors, fellow students, and other researchers and reviewers. I approach a friendly person who I can tell wants me to succeed, and I’ve determined that she will be my mentor. She sparkles with confidence and experience, and she is eager to answer my many questions in order to help me find my way.

Now, finding a mentor is not as easy as wandering into a crowd and meeting a friendly face, but it isn’t as intimidating as it seems. My mentor is a professor that conducts student-oriented research at a university. However, a mentor can be anyone with experience in the research process that is willing to offer guidance and advice. Possible mentors can be found at universities, museums, zoological parks, and hundreds of independent or governmental research-based organizations. Even students that are further along in the research process can act as mentors.

I found my mentor based on how many of my broad research interests (herpetology, conservation, natural history, physiology) seemed to align with projects that were already in progress. I discussed my broad interests with several possible mentors and asked outright if they would be interested in advising a project that overlapped my interests with theirs.

Everyone I talked to was very kind and honest about their research interests. Even if they did not feel like they were the right fit for me, they suggested several more possible mentors that I had not yet thought of. It turns out that these researchers LOVE talking about their current projects and ideas with someone who is interested, which should really not be a surprise! Don’t we all love talking about things with people who have common interests?

We already know what it feels like to discuss snake conservation with others in the same mindset—it is exciting to relate our passion to others! The same thing happens when discussing research ideas with possible mentors. When I found my mentor, things “clicked” like they do in those great conversations. In this case, scientific passion was flowing back and forth.

My mentor waved me in the path towards my goal: tackling an independent research project.

I felt confident strolling along this road even though I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. Luckily, not long before arriving in this new land, I am met by a fellow student who is one year ahead of me in the master’s program. He invites me to join his research project on the same species of rattlesnake I will work with!

Griffin is investigating the role of hydration in the reproduction of Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes, along with other traits that might be affected by the ongoing drought. He has a beautiful field site at Montano de Oro State Park along the central coast of California. I helped him radio-track snakes across sand dunes, into ravines and through poison oak.

The realities of fieldwork were clear—snakes sometimes hide in places they just do NOT want to be found! Especially this species which frequents rocky outcrops and is sometimes hiding behind enormous boulders or on sheer cliff sides. While radio-tracking is a powerful tool, it could only lead us to the location of the snake. The wood rat dens and ground squirrel tunnels at this field site offer plenty of hiding spaces well beyond the reach of a pair of snake tongs.

The most important thing I’ve learned from these field excursions is that even when the researcher wants to collect data or perform an experimental procedure required to do the study, the snakes aren’t always available for manipulation and measuring. Even though I knew snakes were not easy to find, I thought it would be a piece of cake when we had radio-transmitters to locate them. While this could be very frustrating, it gave me a lot of ideas about planning for this obstacle in my own project.

Because I had the experience of following a current researcher for several excursions, I was able to think about the potential problems of fieldwork when trying to design my own study, which I’m sure will save me some frustration in the future. I think experience is the most powerful mentor of all.

Now I can navigate my research process with a fellow student, another person with the same goal as me. I can learn from his experience while gaining my own, and most importantly, we both benefit from sharing our struggles with each other, sharing our tactics for overcoming new obstacles.