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My project versus the scientific method: Making it work

We are interviewing lake association board members to understand what methods they implement to manage invasive species and what factors influence these decisions.

Coming into this summer, I knew that my project was going to be different from everyone else’s. At Arizona State University, I double-major in sustainability and conservation biology. I am ultimately interested in studying how people interact with their environment and how the environment responds to our actions. This summer, I planned to focus on social science more than ecology, yet I did not realize just how different of an experience I would have from my fellow REUs.

My project seemed to be rooted in human behavior, whereas the other projects seemed firmly rooted in ecology. After all, we are at Cary, an institute for ecosystem studies. At first, I felt like I did not quite belong, since my project did not seem to adhere as strictly to the structure of the ‘scientific method’ as the other projects. The scientific method is a series of prescribed steps used to guide the process of doing science. Traditionally, these steps involve the following: make an observation, form a hypothesis, design and conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis, analyze data, reach a conclusion. My project does not follow this exact formula.

For my sustainability major, we do not always adhere to the traditional scientific method; however, we still follow proper process and we still do ‘real’ science. In sustainability, we ask broad questions. We care about the implications of our work on society and the environment – with the goal to initiate tangible change in our communities. When I began my project, I felt uncertain as to how to employ the traditional scientific method in a way that would help me glean the information that I was seeking. I knew that my findings would have to come from interviews, but I did not know how to design an experiment – guided by the steps of the scientific method – that would yield useful results.

signage addressing invasive species
My project looks at aquatic invasive species in northern Wisconsin lakes. We spent the first couple days in Wisconsin driving to townships around Vilas County to survey lakeside signage addressing invasive species. Credit: Corinne Johnson.

After speaking with my mentor about my uncertainty, I realized that for a social science project, it is appropriate to ask exploratory, rather than highly-specific, questions. Asking big, broad questions encourages conversations that open the door for more specific questions to follow – at which point, following the traditional steps of the scientific method would be appropriate. Answers to broad questions can guide our efforts to solve specific problems in our communities.

In northern Wisconsin, lakes are managed by a variety of agencies including lake associations. Aquatic invasive species are a top management concern. For my project, I am interested in how lake associations in Vilas County, Wisconsin combat aquatic invasive species and what factors influence their decisions to employ particular management strategies.

The lakes in this region suffer from a variety of aquatic invasive species; most notable are Eurasian water-milfoil, curly leaf pondweed, purple loosestrife, and rusty crayfish. The rusty crayfish is disruptive because it eats and uproots native weeds. These plants provide important habitat for aquatic organisms and preserve the structure of the lakebed. The other three organisms are plants that take over lake ecosystems and outcompete native species. They can also cover the surface of the lake in mats, precluding recreational activities like boating and skiing.

Each lake association works with a consulting firm and/or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to develop a treatment plan for each case of aquatic invasive species; plans differ between lakes.

We are interviewing lake association board members to understand what methods they implement to manage invasive species and what factors influence these decisions. These interviews cover a wide range of topics including: what invasive species are problematic and managed on a particular lake, what ordinances does the lake association enforce among lake users, and how does the lake association address rule breaking.

Eagle River
My research takes me all over Vilas County, WI and I have begun to learn my favorite spots. There is a little rustic bench in Eagle River that overlooks the Wisconsin River and is the perfect place to watch sunsets. Credit: Corinne Johnson.

I will use information gathered through these interviews to identify trends, log successes and failures, and compare management strategies among the lake associations. At the end of the project, I will share these findings with the lake associations in the study to help them learn from each other.

I have already learned so much about what it means to do applied science and what it means to go out into the field. Although my research is so different from everyone else’s in the Cary REU program, it is rewarding to come back at the end of the day and share my findings. I may not be focusing directly on ecology, but my research contributes to sustainability and to Cary’s focus on translational ecology. Through this process, I have learned about what I want to study in the future while developing a new appreciation for the relationship between sustainability and ecology. 

Corinne Johnson, a student at Arizona State University, is part of Cary Institute's 2019 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

This summer, Corinne is working with Cary scientist Chris Solomon, as well as Dane Whittaker and Marco Janssen from Arizona State University, to study invasive species management strategies in northern Wisconsin lakes. Corinne’s base for the summer is the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC) in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin.