A student contribution to the REU blog.
When I found out that Cary’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program would be run virtually this summer, I was over the moon. I feared that it might be canceled due to COVID-19. I knew my planned research project would need to change since I wouldn’t be able to study the Hudson River in person, but the news came as a relief.
Becoming comfortable with remote research has had its challenges. I’m sure many folks who began working or learning from home during the pandemic will understand: focusing can be impossible. Sheltering in place has prevented me from getting sick, but it comes with distractions. My cats strut across my keyboard. Some days it feels like my dogs never stop barking. Every time I go to the kitchen, I return to my desk thinking about the dirty dishes in the sink.
When quarantine started, I tried to establish a distinct ‘work’ setting and a ‘home’ setting to help me stay productive. I gave my desk a makeover, cleaned my room, and set my alarm for the same time every morning. Yet, I still hit slumps. For a few weeks, I got into a groove: wake up, work, lunch, work, exercise, go to bed, repeat. But then I’d skip a workout, or stay up late scrolling through my Instagram feed, and I found it hard to get back on track.
Ilya Fischhoff, a Cary postdoc working with the REUs, shared ‘The Science of Well-Being’ class with our group – that famous Yale ‘happiness’ course that garnered international attention for ranking among the most popular in the university’s history. The course introduced practices that I have incorporated into my daily routine. I started keeping a gratitude journal, and it has refreshed my perspective on what I accomplish. Writing down five good things that happen each day helps me recognize positive experiences instead of only focusing on stressful things or items left on my to-do list.
I’m also trying to meditate for five minutes at the start of my workday. I like combining meditation with the ‘Pomodoro technique’ – following a pattern of 25 minutes work, 5 minutes break, repeat. This helps me refocus if my mind starts to wander.
When I applied for the Cary REU, I thought I would be out on the Hudson River doing field work all summer. My mentor, Cary aquatic ecologist Stuart Findlay, helped me develop a remote project that I am equally excited to work on. Using real-time data from monitoring stations along the Hudson River, my research goal is to determine whether increased water flowing into the river from precipitation and snowmelt causes the water to become cloudy with sediment.
Crystal clear water allows maximum sunlight penetration, which is great for plants and plankton that need sunlight to photosynthesize. Cloudy water blocks sunlight and impedes photosynthesis. If aquatic plants and phytoplankton can’t make food, they will die. The animals that eat the plants and phytoplankton will also suffer. Plus, aquatic plants in the Hudson provide essential habitat for fish and other wildlife. Effects of cloudy water could reverberate through the food web.
Other studies have shown that large tropical storms can degrade the Hudson River. We want to know if smaller storms, which temporarily increase water and sediments flowing into the river, also pose a threat. Studying the effects of storms on the Hudson is crucial to understanding how we can best protect the river and surrounding ecosystems from the effects of climate change, including higher-frequency storm events.
The combined pressures of the pandemic, heightened response to racial injustice, and a polarizing upcoming election have created new challenges for everyone. To heal and move forward, it’s important to look for a silver lining. The challenges I have faced in quarantine forced me to change my habits in ways that will continue to serve me in the future. When I am able to go back to work and school, I am positive that I will return as a better student, and a better researcher.
Annabelle McCarthy, a student at the College of the Sequoias, participated in Cary Institute's 2020 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.
This summer, Annabelle worked with Cary scientist Stuart Findlay to study effects of storms on Hudson River turbidity and aquatic life.