Throughout the Fall 2017 semester I worked on an ecology research project for Place-Based Ecology, taught by Dr. Jan Eitel. This research project was meant to be focused on an aspect of the local ecology, and I chose to study the impact of rock climbing on cliff vegetation cover at a local climbing crag. This was an issue important to me both as a rock climbing enthusiast and environmental steward. I wanted to better understand the impact my actions as an outdoor recreationist were potentially having on fragile cliff ecosystems. The result of my research did not find a statistically significant difference between the percent cover of vegetation between the studied climbed and unclimbed cliff faces. However, this finding was far from being the most significant lesson I learned from this project.
My greatest insecurity in coming to MOSS was my lack of education in science. During the months between being accepted and starting the program, my emotions ranged from excitement and anticipation to worry and concern. I feared that I would be too far behind in my science education to keep up with the rest of my cohort. This fear persisted through fall orientation, despite going through the curriculum we would use with our own 6th grade students: everyone is a scientist, and science is not about having all the answers. Instead, it is about asking questions. While I was able to immediately see the truth in this when working with my field groups, it took going through my own scientific process to accept it for myself.
The first impactful learning moment in the process of my research was realizing that I could come up with a question that was “interesting”, as the assignment required. At first, I found it difficult to believe that I could come up with a meaningful topic when I had no experience in the field to begin with. So, when fellow graduate student Angela Como responded to my tentative idea on studying rock climbing impacts by saying “Actually, you really could do your project about that,” it was incredibly validating. In that moment, I realized my potential to ask questions worth researching, and felt empowered to do the work necessary to seek out answers to those questions.
In the following weeks, I learned that while seeking answers is a great driver of scientific research, more often than not, you are left with more questions than when you first started. By the end of my research, I had read many papers on the potential impacts of rock climbing and found nearly every outcome imaginable: significant impact, low impact, no impact, inconclusive. I discovered that the study of cliffs was a difficult one, and that few research papers (including my own) had taken the microtopography of cliffs into account when studying climbing impact. Ultimately, while my research paper concluded by stating that future research would require a greater sample size and a consideration of microtopography, my own conclusions were of greater significance. I came to have a greater appreciation not just for the back-and-forth of the scientific process, but also for my own ability to engage with that process. Although I had not yet come so far as to see myself as “scientist”, this first foray into the world of scientific research showed me that I was capable of being a student of science, and that I would not be left behind during my year at MOSS.