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Prairie Biologists

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Erin Miles Prairie ScientistErin Miles .

What is your Job description?
I'm a Graduate student working on a PhD in Ecology.  I, also, teach introductory biology to college freshmen.

What do you study now?
I study ecology with an emphasis in tallgrass prairie restoration.  More specifically, I study the effects of a non-native grass (Poa pratensis / Kentucky bluegrass) on the diversity and composition of the prairie plant community compared to the native grasses.

Whats the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is the exploratory nature of it.  There are so many questions out there, and once you find the answers to them you have also formed a 100 more questions about other things.  Also, in this field you learn so much about the environment you live in, and there is nothing better than knowledge to help you appreciate your surroundings.  Another great thing about my area of work is all the potential things you can go and teach others. I am also learning about finding ways for humans and nature to exist in harmony with each other.

What is the worst thing about your job?
The worst thing?...hmmm, sometimes how time consuming it is.  There is also the stress of forming your questions and hypotheses only to find out, after you have invested all the time and effort into the research process, that your questions and hypotheses are invalid.  That is a big part of science, and the only way to learn sometimes is by failure.

What inspired you to first study science?
I fell in love with the outdoors.  I grew up camping and hiking and being an all around tomboy.  Insects interested me; plants interested me; animals interested all interested me!  I had a huge curiousity to know and understand everything I saw in nature and how it all fit together to create the world we live in.

What do you do in a typical day?
When I am in the field a typical day is much different from when I am in the lab.  In the field my day begins by waking up (this summer I woke up every morning in a cabin in the woods and had to use an outhouse) and walking over to the lab.  I would grab my equipment and head out to my plots.  Depending on what needed to get done that day the things I took out to the field with me differed.  Somedays I was painting roundup on individual blades of grass (establishing my treatments) or planting seeds. Other days I would be counting how many different plants were in my plot and how many of each kind were present.  After a day in the field I would return to the lab where I would enter the data that I collected from the field.  My day would usually end with me reading papers of other research studies conducted by other scientists.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?
Follow your passion!  There are so many things to study; plants, animals,
insects, oceans, clouds, fish, etc.  Find what you are really interested and
head in that direction.  Don't try to narrow your interests too much,
because in the end it is all connected, but just make sure that the area you
want to study is one that truly interests you.  Also, learn all you can.  If
you are interested in studying fish in the ocean don't ignore the plants on
the land, you'd be surprised how much you can learn about one thing from
something that seems completely different!

Ramesh LaunganiRamesh Laungani

What is your Job description?
I am currently a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I am working on getting my Ph.D in plant ecology.  My job in general is made up of two parts, one is research and the other is teaching.  The research that I do is on plant competition and that topic is what I run experiments on.  I also teach college students about ecology and evolution in a laboratory setting, where we run smaller experiments.

What do you study now?
I study competition between plants.  Like us, plants need food and water. While we can get our food from the grocery store, plants need to get their food and water from the soil.  When two plants are sitting next to each other they are competing for that food in the soil.  That food can be nutrients and minerals such as nitrogen.  Certain plants are better at getting this food in the soil than others and so they win competition and can grow.  The plant that cannot compete as well at getting the resources from the soil will unfortunately lose the competition and die, or become a lot smaller.  I study how different trees and grasses compete for these resources in the soil.  I also study how the plants affect the animals in the soil (such as microbes) to help the plants get the nutrients they need.

Whats the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is that all my experiments are outside and I get to travel all over the world to do my experiments.  I have been to the rainforests of Australia, the rainforests of Panama, the prairies of Minnesota, and the deserts of the Grand Canyon.  I also get to understand how these places are similar and how they are different.  My summers are spent outdoors running my experiments so it is like combining summer vacation, because I get to see cool places, and science, because I get to do my experiments and learn about the world around me.

What is the the worst thing?
The worst part about my job is that sometimes experiments do not work because of something that I did not plan for.  For example I was running this experiment where I planted a bunch of pine tree seeds in with different grass species to see if pine trees compete differently with different grass neighbors. Unfortunately none of my pine seeds germinated.  I was not at all happy about this but I reminded myself not to get disheartened. I had to figure out why the experiment didn't work so I set up a series of other experiments so that I could learn something.

What inspired you to first study science?
When I was in Australia studying the rainforests out there I was just amazed by how cool the rainforest was.  There were so many plants and animals that all fit together so well.  I wanted to learn how such an amazing system like the rainforest worked, how it “fit together so well.”  I also had great teachers who made me believe in myself, and that I could study this system, and in general they showed me that I can do science.  So it was a combination of great teachers and a great environment to learn and ask questions. 

The rainforest, just like every other ecosystem on the planet, has great questions that have not been answered, and even better questions that have not even been asked yet.  And the amazing part about ecology is that there is so much going on and so many different components (all the different plants and different animals).

What do you do in a typical day.
On a typical day in the field I would go to my plots and sample some soil from them (remove the soil from the plots).  I would then take this soil and measure the levels of resources for the plants and how active the microbes are.  I also measure how much water is available to the plants and microbes. I also examine how the plants are performing. Are they taking up a lot or resources in the soil or not? 

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?
If you want to become a biologist all you need is curiosity about the world around you.  If you have ever asked yourself “Why is that plant there?” or “How does my DNA fix itself if it needs a repair?” you are on your way.  As long as you never forget about the curiosity that made you interested in the world around you, you will be a successful scientist.  Now with that said, it is a lot of hard work. We do know a lot about the world around us, and so it is important that you not only know, but understand, what information is already out there so that the questions that you will ask will be novel and not repetitive.


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