By Rhonda Schwinabart
In the autumn of 2020, research scientists at the USGS National Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC) and Howard University faculty began a conversation on how to increase collaboration between the two institutions. They soon discovered a matching expertise between the CASC researchers and Howard’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (ES) program and the Atmospheric Science graduate program. What resulted is an internship program facilitated through the Chesapeake Watershed CESU that will see ten (10) Howard undergraduate students complete spring/summer internships with CASC over the three (3) years of the project.
“From the perspective of faculty expertise and student training, this was a natural partnership,” said co-Principal Investigator (PI) Dr. Janelle Burke, Program Coordinator of the ES program. “Following the pandemic, our students are really thirsty for the intensive research experiences they missed in their first years at Howard.”
The size of the internship program is deliberately small to ensure the one-on-one mentorship that is a primary goal of the initiative. In year one, which ended in late July 2022, three students completed internships with the CASC, each working with a different CASC mentor.
One intern, Shania Brace, worked on an established CASC project involving a systematic review of species range shifts in response to climate change. A number of species, including insect species, are not adjusting their ranges as scientists would expect in response to warming temperatures, and researchers are not sure why. As part of a larger project designed to understand more about observed shifts, Brace built a database of insect traits that may assist in explaining the “why” of their range shifts.
Nyeema Caldwell and Sierra Gee, the two other interns participating in year one, completed literature reviews during their time with CASC, one on climate change effects on the migration of deer, elk, and other hoofed mammals, and the second for a new project on evolutionary and genetic rescue. Evolutionary rescue is the theory that evolution may occur rapidly enough to offset population declines and avoid extinction. Alternatively, genetic rescue involves moving genes from one population to another to add genetic diversity to help a threatened species avoid extinction.
In addition to working one-on-one with researchers at the CASC, interns also benefited from weekly training provided by Dr. Ricardo Sakai with Howard’s Atmospheric Science graduate program.
Program Outcomes in Year 1
Students who participated in the program’s first year presented their work and reflected on their experiences during a research symposium held at the end of this summer.
Of her internship experience, Caldwell, said, “I had a great internship. I learned how to properly find scientific sources and analyze data. The best part was learning R [software for statistical computing], even though it was also the most challenging.”
Some students are even continuing their participation in the projects as volunteers through the fall semester. For example, Brace is continuing on the insect database project this fall and will be a co-author on a planned paper about the research gap filled by her insect database.
While the students obviously benefited from their participation in the internship program, they are not the only ones.
Sarah Weiskopf, of CASC, noted, “It’s great on the student end because they get that research experience, but it’s great for us, too. We get additional scientists to work on our projects. Without Shania [Brace], we wouldn’t have been able to pull together the data we needed.”
Weiskopf also notes the re-energizing impact from working with students new to the field and brimming with enthusiasm. “The students were really enthusiastic, and it was fun to work with people who got so excited about the project.”
Year 2 and Next Steps
In year one, mentors were identified early and students ranked projects according to preference as part of their application. Students learned more about the mentors and their work through a seminar series held at Howard in October 2021. At the end of the mentors’ seminars, students could scan a QR code to apply directly to the program and the projects that piqued their interest.
“If you want students to persist,” said Burke, “you need that shared intellectual interest.”
This shared interest is so important to success, that projects can be adjusted after students have been selected to better fit students’ interests, goals, and skill development needs.
As for year two of the internship program, CASC researchers and Howard University faculty plan to take a similar approach to recruiting students for the program, and as a first step, will be meeting this fall to identify potential projects and mentors. Internship leaders want students to participate in work that contributes to larger research projects but also want to make sure their contributions can be completed during the 10-weeks of the summer internship.
All agree, despite challenges wrought by the pandemic, year one of the internship program was a success, and collaboration between the two institutions, the goal of those initial discussions, continues to grow as a result. Because of this collaboration, students are gaining valuable research experience, and the CASC has been able to move projects forward that otherwise would not have progressed this quickly. Program leaders plan to build on this success in the following years.
Learn more about the Howard University Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (ES) program at https://ids.howard.edu/academics/environmental-studies/about-our-program and about the USGS National Climate Adaptation Science Center at https://www.usgs.gov/programs/climate-adaptation-science-centers. CHWA CESU project-related information can be found by searching for project number “G21AC10426” on the Active Projects Report of the CHWA CESU project database at https://chwacesu.org/current-and-past-projects/.