On a recent research journey to West Virginia, EWU students joined the lichen hunters.
One of the bonuses of federal research funding is that awards typically include dollars for student training and travel. For a group of student researchers working with Jessica Allen, an EWU professor of biology whose work on lichen genomics and conservation has garnered substantial support from the National Science Foundation, this sometimes-overlooked benefit was very welcome indeed.
Thanks in part to Allen’s most recent NSF award, this summer an enthusiastic crew of ten student lichen hunters were able to join their professor at the Tuckerman Lichen Workshop, an annual field course for scholars and enthusiasts — both expert and amateur — held this year in a remote redoubt of Appalachia.
The trip involved two long travel days and four days of intensive study, with Jackie Coomes, an EWU honors program professor, handling the logistics and teaching assistants Bubba Pfeffer, Meaghan Petix, and Stephen Sharrett pitching in for on-site instruction.
Mornings, Allen says, were typically spent in species identification and specimen collecting in the Monongahela National Forest near Elkins, West Virginia. Afternoons often involved analysis work in a nearby laboratory.
For biology major Jodi Brandt, a sophomore from Spokane, the Tuckerman experience was a great way to experience the fullness of the ecosystems that lichens call home.
“It was really interesting because everyone loved lichen — which is why we were there — but everyone also had different interests such as mycology and botany,” Brant says. “As we were walking through the forest, people would stop, show us different things and give little mini lessons. It was a great experience and I’m so grateful I was able to go.”
Andrew Flaig, a senior from Seattle who, like Brandt, is also a biology major, says the workshop was the perfect “real world” culmination of his four years of classroom learning.
“I’ve taken a lot of classes throughout my undergrad journey,” Flaig says. “This trip was quite eye opening: I realized that, despite being thousands of miles away from Eastern, the information I’ve been accumulating for the last four years has followed me.”
“My greatest hope is that the students, by traveling to a different ecosystem and being immersed in it, learn to slow down and become really acute observers,” Allen says.
Allen says the experience was a great way to help her students think about environments extending beyond the familiar (if undeniably stunning) mountains, forests and seashores of the Pacific Northwest. “My greatest hope is that the students, by traveling to a different ecosystem and being immersed in it, learn to slow down and become really acute observers,” Allen says. “And that when they come back home they will bring that same level of attention to our local ecosystems.”
Another plus of the trip, she adds, is that attending workshops such as the Tuckerman can open students’ eyes to the many career paths available to budding biologists.
“The more different biology paths that students are exposed to, and the more opportunities they have to interact with people doing various things, the better,” Allen says. “A biology degree is really flexible: It gives you so many opportunities to go in so many ways when you’re done.”