Today we are doing fieldwork. Our mission is to find dozens of daddy long-legs hidden inside the dark, murky water pipes that lay under the hiking trail. We will be noting each individual’s age and the number of legs. We will not be venturing far. Our field site is the Fire Trail on Strawberry Creek in Berkeley, just a 1.6-mile hike uphill from our lab in the Valley Life Sciences Building. There are many assumptions and required explanations so far in this paragraph. Fortunately, a mentee worked with me this summer to challenge those assumptions, demand explanations, and make me question the thought process that guides my research.
Being a mentee and a mentor is quite the endeavor. This summer I participated as a research mentor for the Student Mentoring and Research Teams (SMART) program hosted and funded by UC Berkeley’s Graduate Division. An undergraduate student from the College of Natural Resources, Veronica Ellis, joined my dissertation research for 10 weeks.
During this time, we conducted research together and grew our professional development skills alongside the other teams in the program. The research component was all encompassing and included the practice of critical research skills such as reading scientific papers on relevant topics, designing a thoughtful and practical experiment, conducting field and lab work, and finally analyzing and presenting our data.
As for professional development, the SMART program provided several opportunities to work on preparing applications, writing scientific and outreach literature, networking, and most vital to this particular experience, mentoring. On most days graduate students are mentees. However, becoming a principal investigator and running our own lab is one of the many routes available after completing the Ph.D. By evaluating the ways we receive mentorship, we are able to reflect on how we can be constructive mentors to others. This is not an easy task, as anyone that has been involved in any side of the equation can attest. Having guided activities to reflect on how one needs mentorship, and on how one can and should give meaningful mentorship was certainly one the highlights of the program.
Back to research! This summer, my mentee and I conducted a vital experiment for my dissertation research. Instead of doing field experiments in the tropical forests of Costa Rica or Panama as I have in the past, I decided to study a local species here in Berkeley. This project focused on the behavior and physiology of the conspicuous and gracious daddy long-legs of the species Nelima paessleri. From the fieldwork on the Fire Trial we were able to better understand their natural history, where they live, what they eat, who eats them, etc.
We collected individuals and took them to the lab where we aimed to study their energetics of locomotion. In other words, we measured how much oxygen they consume while moving. For this, we had daddy long-legs run on a tiny treadmill inside a sealed chamber made of clear tempered plastic, which is connected to an oxygen analyzer. The technical name of this set up is ‘open-flow respirometry’. With this approach, we can analyze –and control– how much oxygen is pumped into and out of the chamber. Since the animal inside the chamber is moving, we can infer that the difference between the oxygen reading entering and exiting the chamber are due to the animal breathing.
The implications of this lab method are huge. For example, we can better understand the basic physiological principals of how animals can efficiently use oxygen. Additionally, these data will show how animals respond physiologically to bodily damage. Daddy long-legs frequently and voluntarily lose legs in an effort to escape predators. However, unlike some animals, which can regenerate lost limbs, daddy long-legs are simply left well… legless. Therefore, understanding if moving with fewer legs is more costly ‘fuel-wise’ (aka oxygen) will help us understand how animals respond to this potentially detrimental change.
Ten weeks sure do go by fast and now summer break is over. So, how was it? This experience was both challenging and rewarding. The final product of the SMART program was twofold: first, a supportive and constructive mentoring experience, and second, a research project with interesting results that are suitable for publication. Doing research comes with endless logistical challenges and obstacles. In our case they were in the form of not finding enough animals, not being able to house them properly in the lab (at first), and troubleshooting the oxygen analyzer.
Together, my mentee and I were able to solve all of these issues by having an open mind, thinking outside the box, and having clear communication. It was this productive atmosphere that helped us solve the least expected — albeit toughest — challenge this summer: how to properly attach our research poster to the 3-panel cardboard frame for the closing reception. There were so many options! The mentor, myself, initially thought that staples were the way to go. The mentee thought we needed to cut the poster because the paper was too stiff. None of those strategies alone worked. However, in an interesting metaphor for mentorship, we ended up cutting and stapling it.
Ignacio Escalante is a Costa Rican field biologist, currently a PhD candidate in ESPM. He studies the behavior and ecology of tropical and Californian daddy long-legs, to understand the evolution of animal defenses.