Designing an Experiment from Scratch

A neophyte learns the ropes of doing science
Monitoring northern house wrens provides clues to sustainable forest management. (Photo: Kristin Jones)

Monitoring northern house wrens provides clues to sustainable forest management. (Photo: Kristin Jones)

Designing an experiment from scratch is hard enough. Doing it in six months is a staggering feat. But Oregon State University graduate Kristin Jones pulled it off, immersing herself in scholarly papers, writing a detailed proposal, acquiring materials and constructing equipment in preparation for an intensive period of fieldwork — all while working as a strategic planning assistant for the dean of the College of Forestry.

“There was a point when I would call my mom almost every night because I was so stressed,” says Jones. “I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid for my future because I wasn’t sure if I could get everything done in time.”

Thanks to the active participation and support of her advisers and mentors — Matt Betts and Jim Rivers in OSU’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society and Dan Ardia at Franklin & Marshall College — she made it in time for nesting season in the Coast Range.

One of her biggest lessons learned: Getting funding is tough. Many of her sentences end in the melancholy, trailing phrase, “… well, if we can get the funding…”

It used to be that locating and monitoring nests in the wilderness were relatively equipment-free and inexpensive. But new technology and a flood of data can increase research costs exponentially. “Seven hundred bucks for this little bag,” Jones groans as she plops a fist-sized sack of miniscule ID tags onto the lab bench.

Count Them Coming and Going

These radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are millimeter-long cylinders that are attached to the wrens’ legs. Registered by a receiver antenna on the nest, they act as beacons. Each time a wren leaves to search for food, the tag will set off the receiver, instructing the data logger to record the tag’s number. Jones can accurately count how many times the adult wrens leave their nestlings (without having to crouch in the grass with a clipboard for hours on end, as in days of old). By comparing wren behaviors across the two treatment plots (chemicals versus no chemicals), Jones will get important clues to the impact of herbicides on foraging behavior and time spent outside the nest.

How wrens fare in different forest stands is Kristin Barker's research focus. (Photo: Kristin Barker)

How wrens fare in different forest stands is Kristin Barker’s research focus. (Photo: Kristin Jones)

After a quick capture and leg-tagging, the wrens return to their daily lives. The mother will protect her eggs. The male will sing his melodious, bubbly song, broadcasting his territorial dominance. The babies will hatch, hatchlings cry, fledglings fly. Unaware of their role in science, the wrens will serve as data points for one graduate student and her potentially groundbreaking experiment.

 

One Response to “Designing an Experiment from Scratch”

  1. Congrats to Kristin and I wish her the best of luck with this project. Glad to see that she was able to get funding and that technology offers her a break from crouching in the grass.

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