Students Conduct Independent Research

By Charlotte Kugler '14

The Harvard Forest Summer Research Program in Ecology, offered to undergraduates by Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, provides engaging internship opportunities for students interested in environmental issues. Two Mount Holyoke students, Linn Jennings '12 and Sofiya Taskova '12, participated in the program this past summer, conducting their own independent research on topics of their choice.

Jennings chose to work on an ongoing study of ragweed pollen abundance in Massachusetts. She explained that because of the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, pollen levels are expected to rise. This presents a public health problem since ragweed is the leading cause of allergy symptoms in the country.

"I'm interested in environmental health and ecology, and this project was perfect for me because I was able to do field work and connect my research to my interest in how humans affect and are affected by the natural world," she said.

Her environmental studies classes at Mount Holyoke gave Jennings a solid background and foundational skills that helped her conduct in-depth research while doing her project. She also learned new skills through the work she did while at Harvard Forest.

"My project required learning some of the basics of 'R,' a statistical computing program," explained Jennings. "I am now taking a class at UMass this semester to learn more about environmental statistics and simple statistical modeling using R.”

She looks forward to expanding on her summer project in her senior thesis this year.

"I want to continue to do research after college, and I might be interested in pursuing a career in environmental health," Jennings said.

Taskova, who has worked as a student researcher at Harvard Forest for the past two summers, helped design a new software tool for collecting, storing, and querying scientific data provenance.

Data provenance describes the history of how a data set came to exist, and how this history can be used for verifying the authenticity of the data, replicating the process that created the data, and improving that process, she explained. She worked primarily with data from a hydrological study conducted by the ecologist Emery Boose from Harvard Forest.

"The software engineering component and the interdisciplinary nature of the project equally kindled my interest," said Taskova.

The computer science courses she has taken at Mount Holyoke came in handy when designing her software. She reported that she also learned about technologies and database models that are not part of the computer science curriculum, but are important and useful to know in both research and the industry.

"Thinking about the problem of verifying the authenticity of data, I have become convinced that there is often very little attention paid to the credibility of results in the context of important research," Taskova reflected.

She hopes that her software will help assist environmental researchers and improve their statistical results.

Data provenance might not be what she continues to study, but her experience at Harvard Forest has given Taskova a solid idea for her future career: "I most certainly see myself doing software engineering after graduation."

The Harvard Forest internships were sponsored by the College's Miller Worley Center for the Environment.