rocks and water in forest
News Blog

Intern Experience: Analyzing Phenology Data from Khao Chong

Cara Scalpone is a recent graduate of Pitzer College with a degree in Environmental Science and a Mathematics minor. She was introduced to the ForestGEO network during her quantitative ecology internship at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the summer of 2018. While at SERC, she collected dendrometer and leaf trait data at the SERC ForestGEO plot, and investigated biweekly growth in xylem architectural properties in archived micro-core wood samples. She joined the ForestGEO headquarters in DC as a data intern in the fall of 2018 through spring of 2019. She describes her internship experience in the following post.

Following a summer of fieldwork in the SERC ForestGEO site with Jess Shue and Sean McMahon, I was pleased to start another ForestGEO internship working with Dr. Stuart Davies focused on data analysis and management. I came to ForestGEO seeking experience that would help me decide whether I am ready to pursue further education and a career in ecological research. 

Collecting data in the SERC plot and traveling between ForestGEO sites introduced me to the network and the broad scope of the research possible through international collaboration. However, it wasn’t until I started my position as data intern, and worked directly with data collected from the Khao Chong plot in Thailand, that I understood the rarity and power of having such an immense network of forest data to work with.

The SERC team during Cara's summer 2018 internship. Pictured: Uzay Sezen, Rutuja Chitra-Tarak,
Sean McMahon, Cara Scalpone, Jess Shue, and Jessie Needham.

At the Khao Chong plot, Principal Investigators  Sarayudh Bunyavejchewin and Stuart Davies have overseen the collection of monthly flowering and fruiting surveys for the past 18 years. The extensive dataset allowed us to observe an apparent forest-wide decline in reproduction, which spurned our inquiry into the possible environmental cues that could drive such a decline. As I have always envisioned myself as a quantitative ecologist, sifting through the phenology data to expose broad ecological trends cemented my interest in pursuing that field.

While I anticipated gaining various skills in data wrangling and coding, the most valuable lessons I learned grew out of unexpected challenges. For example, as an undergraduate researcher, I had not yet been brought onto a project that did not already have clear questions and methods established. Formulating the goals of the project from its conception will likely be the most applicable skill I gained to my further education. Furthermore, when we realized that our questions required us to use advanced analysis techniques that were unfamiliar, I had to teach myself about these analyses, and recognize the point at which I needed to ask for guidance.

ForestGEO staff at Cherry Blossom festival
ForestGEO HQ team during Cara's internship in DC. Pictured: Mauro Lepore,
Cara Scalpone, David Kenfack, and Lauren Krizel.

Beyond the skills and experience I gained, the diverse roles of the people I have met along the way have opened my eyes to other possibilities in the field beyond academia and a doctorate path. Jess Shue’s role as head technician is as crucial to bringing new insights to forest research as any other member of the Quantitative Ecology team. Lauren Krizel, the program manager, facilitates every aspect of ForestGEO’s functions as an international network. ForestGEO’s R-package developer, Mauro Lepore’s path from marine ecologist to software developer also showed me that I could shift my focus after a doctorate program, rather than being tied to a particular field for my entire career. All of these people have shown me I should think about the other possible paths in the field of environmental research.

Through it all, I have developed a strong sense of self in my pursuit of a career in environmental research. I am extremely thankful to Stuart Davies, Sean McMahon, and Jess Shue for mentoring me during my time at ForestGEO. I am also extremely lucky to continue my research with Stuart on the Khao Chong phenology data, and bring our questions to the ForestGEO analytical workshop in Singapore this June. I look forward to encountering more challenges, and meeting more people from the network this summer!