This summer, Alison Ochs ’17 and Nicole Hoffler ’16 are doing far more than seeing the forest for the trees. As part of the Harvard Forest Summer Research Program in Ecology, they’re also helping discover ways to better protect and sustain it.
Ochs and Hoffler are among the 22 undergraduates selected this year from 700 applicants for the 11-week program. Located at the Harvard Forest, a 3,500-acre laboratory and classroom in Petersham, Massachusetts, the program provides mentored, paid, independent research opportunities to examine the effects of natural and human disturbances on forest ecosystems.
Ochs, a biological sciences major from Phoenix, Arizona, works with a group examining how declining hemlock forests affect arthropods, salamanders, and small mammals. Hoffler, a computer science major and theatre arts minor from Charlotte, North Carolina, is helping develop a computer program to better track and verify data collected in the field.
“All students in the program are contributing to high-impact ecological research,” says Grace W. Barber, a proctor for the program. “Each works with a faculty mentor on an independent project and then presents their work at our annual research symposium.”
Ochs’s independent project focuses on soil dynamics; that is, what is changing in the soil and how it affects the red-backed salamander population. “Soil is something I’ve never studied before and it is amazing. I’m doing screening and have learned new lab protocols,” she says. “My mentors have been great. It’s an area of research that I might continue back at Mount Holyoke.”
Hoffler’s work, meanwhile, takes place in an office setting. “There’s so much data collected here. My project aims to make the visual representation of the data more attractive and more effective,” she explains. In addition, once a week, she and another student head into the field to measure water levels. It’s a pretty basic task, Hoffler says, but it allows them to experience the field site in a hands-on way.
Along with doing meaningful projects, Ochs and Hoffler love being part of a tight-knit community of student researchers from all over the United States—and other countries—who have a wide range of academic interests. “Over meals and in the dorms, we inevitably talk about our projects and learn a lot from each other,” says Hoffler. “I’m getting an incredible education in ecology that has me thinking differently about the directions my career in computer science could take.”
“Having this type of opportunity is what I expected from Mount Holyoke,” adds Ochs. “I knew it was a college that would prepare me to do my part to change the world.”
—By Michelle Ducharme