A Fork in the River

Delaune, Schmitt and Brown learn about the data collected at that site.

Five researchers traveled to the Pecos River in New Mexico to collect data for an environmental DNA project. One common thread that held them together was if they had not changed their original paths, they would not have been working together.

According to the National Center for Education Studies, approximately 80 percent of undergraduate students change their major at least once. Two professors, two undergraduates, and a doctoral student within the Department of Natural Resources Management at Texas Tech University can be included in that statistic.

Medicine to ecology

Matthew Barnes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources Management but was on an entirely different path before becoming an ecologist.

“I didn’t grow up knowing that I was going to be a researcher,” Barnes said. “I grew up thinking I was going to go to medical school.”

Barnes said he likes giving students a chance to research in his lab just as his ecology professor at Southwestern University gave him the opportunity. He enjoys watching students participate in research and considers it his job to help train the next generation of scientists.

A wilder biology

Matthew Jones, a wildlife biology major at Texas Tech, got involved with Barnes’ research when one of his natural resources management classes required volunteer hours. He was initially a molecular biology major when he started his college career, but when he came to Tech, he researched all of the degrees offered and found degree paths and concentrations he liked in natural resources management.

Jones said he wished he had started research earlier in his academic career. Combining what he learns in the classroom with what he learns in the lab and field brings his education full circle. He said he will soon be starting undergraduate research of his own due to his work with Barnes on other research.

“I feel privileged,” Jones said. “There are thousands of students that go to Texas Tech, and only so many can work in Dr. Barnes lab.”

“Whatever path you take originally doesn’t have to be the one you ‘ride or die,’ with,”

Journalism meets ecology

Allison Pease, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources Management. She began her college career as a journalism major and was close to completing her degree before she decided to double major. She wanted to be a scientific journalist and was taking many science courses when she realized she enjoyed journalism but preferred the science-based courses more.

“I developed a passion for fish really early on; initially for more marine type things,” Pease said, “but as I went to college, I got more experience working in rivers and streams, and I realized I liked that even more.”

Pease grew up with a family full of biologists – her mother, father, and grandmother all have degrees in biology. Her father often took her to collect crabs for her aquarium. Although the trips with her dad sparked an interest, it wasn’t until her undergraduate courses at the University of Texas that realized she wanted to follow in her family’s biology footsteps. She spent a summer helping with field research in ichthyology, the study of fishes, and limnology, the biology of lakes and streams, which gave her experience in aquatic ecology.

Pease said she feels working with undergraduate students’ research is a mutualistic relationship. The students make connections with their peers and professors, build up their resumes, and hone in on the things they learn in class. The students also take a load off of the professors by doing the entry-level work that would take time away from advising students, preparing for classes and applying for grants.

“A good benefit for students getting involved in these projects is it can give you a signal as to if you don’t enjoy it or at least enjoy parts of it,” Pease said. “That’s probably a sign that this might not be what you had in mind and maybe think about switching to something a bit different.”

A new stage

Kelbi collecting water samples for eDNA study.
Kelbi collects water samples for eDNA study.

Kelbi Delaune is a doctoral student under Pease investigating the effects of perennial and ephemeral tributaries on resources and biodiversity within the Pecos River. She was close to finishing her Bachelor in Fine Arts when she volunteered to go on some research trips in Balmorhea, Texas.

“I really enjoyed the field work and working in the systems in west Texas,” Delaune said. “That was the pivotal moment, doing undergraduate research.”

Delaune added a minor in biology after a few of the sampling trips and went on to graduate school where she received her Master of Science in Biological Services.

Big bug theory

Connor Brown had initially applied to Texas Tech under the impression he would become a veterinarian. However, after learning about the natural resources management program during a transfer student even, he decided to redirect his plans and changed his major.

“Right now, I’m looking at the macroinvertebrate communities along the Pecos River and comparing those to historical data from the 80s,” Brown said.

Find your delta

Brown also helps Delaune and Pease with their respective research. He said he likes the hands-on experience of actually being in the river and getting to see the things taught in classes firsthand.

Delaune and Brown went to two of their sites on the Pecos River to collect data for their research in October 2017. They knew exactly what they had to do, even though their advisor, Pease, would not be on-site to direct them.

Pease said she spends a lot of time training students who work under her to ensure their confidence when she cannot be in the field or the lab with them. She said she puts a lot of trust in her graduate students to help guide the undergraduates as well. She also said she is a phone call away if her students need a question answered immediately.

“Whatever path you take originally doesn’t have to be the one you ‘ride or die,’ with,” Delaune said. “It’s OK to change, even if you feel like you’ve invested a lot of time into something. It’s OK to change your mind and find something new. Don’t ever feel like something is holding you down.”

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