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From the Field: An Exploration of Field Research


About the blog author

James Walts (He/Him/His) is an accelerated bachelor’s/master’s (ABM) student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is currently studying the effects of phosphorylation of an essential to life protein (HP1a) in Drosophila melanogaster in Dr. Nicole Riddle’s lab. He is interested in exploring more aspects of research to better determine his future career paths, as such he took Dr. Stacy Krueger-Hadfield’s BY354 Field Phycology course to experience research in the field. 

One of the most essential questions an up-and-coming researcher must ask themselves is “What do I want to study?” Like most life altering questions, you must discover your answer on your own.  

So, like any reasonable person I panicked, told myself (and my mom) this was going to be the end of me, put on my favorite childhood movie, and ate ice-cream straight from the tub.  

It was during this over-dramatic moment that I thought about why I was doing research in the first place. I remembered my fascination with life and its amazing stories, and I remembered that I wanted to find and share those stories. 

Shortly after, I learned Dr. Krueger-Hadfield was offering a summer class with the opportunity to conduct field research throughout the streams of Alabama at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. My research experience thus far consisted mostly of molecular genetic work on a highly studied organism (D. melanogaster) and this opportunity would allow me to take my first steps outside of the lab and gather field experience.  

Along with the four other students taking this course and two grad students, we drove what ended up being almost 17 hours from Birmingham, AL to Wachapreague, VA.  

We were divided into small groups to share the cooking and cleaning tasks of each day and we quickly devised a plan of what meals we would be making over the next week. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was one of the first moments where we were all forced to work together to achieve a simple task and get to know one another. 

Each day we would all load up into either the van or the boat to travel to some remote location on the Delmarva Peninsula to start our collections. This is the first point at which all my previous training failed me. Working with D. melanogaster, I control nearly every aspect of their environment for the entirety of their life, so I am not used to having to worry about the environment. Collecting algae, however, was the exact opposite. Nothing could be controlled for, so we had to note down everything about the environment, the temperature, salinity, weather, water quality, etc. for each collection location. I was overwhelmed at the lack of control we had over the sampling compared to my lab experiments, but I’m afraid this would be the least of our worries.  

Picture taken of me collecting Gracilaria vermiculophylla © Krueger-Hadfield 2023

At the end of each day, after all our hard work, we prepared dinner and gathered around the table. We shared stories, asked questions, laughed, and grew into a weird family. In those moments, I forgot about the hours we spent collecting and identifying species and was beyond glad that I had chosen to do this. 

I knew going into this trip it would be different than the work I was doing in the lab, but I wasn’t prepared for how different it would be. While I struggled through a lot of this experience, I now have many stories to share about the algal species that I collected, and I know more about what kind of career I want for my future. 



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