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Being a high school intern in a tropical research project

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

By Carmel Dill-Cruz

Hello! My name is Carmel Dill-Cruz, and I am a 17-year-old High School student from California, USA. This summer I had the opportunity to be TRACE’s first ever high school intern. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, internship opportunities were scarce for this summer; but after reading a New York Times article that featured Dr. Tana Wood and the Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment’s work in El Yunque, Puerto Rico; I decided to email her and explore an in-person internship . After happily receiving a response back and many emails later, I was offered the opportunity to join the team for a two-week internship exploring different aspects of tropical research. Since my family and I were already traveling to Puerto Rico this summer it worked out perfectly, I stayed close to the research station and commuted daily for a full day of research in the tropical forest.

At the beginning of my internship I was asked if there was anything specific I wanted to learn, and as a person who didn’t know much about this field but was excited to learn more I asked to be taught as much as possible. And boy, did they deliver!

In my 2 weeks I worked on the following:

  • How to do an official census of trees and seedlings

  • I worked with a Minirhizotron camera capturing underground root images. In the picture below: (1) Device that allows the camera to move 1mm, (2) This part connects the camera to the triggers that allow the camera to go up and down, (3) The 1 meter acrylic tube that the camera goes down into.

Minirhizotron Camera. Photo by Carmel Dill-Cruz

  • Assisted an undergraduate student, Andrea Padilla, with her research project about the production and diffusion of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) from the tropical forest soil to the atmosphere, for her Research for Undergraduates Experience (REU).

Soil gas sampling. Photos by Andrea Padilla.

  • Took plant physiology measurements with the project’s technician, Nicole Gutiérrez. Using the LI-6800 Portable photosynthesis system.

Plant physiology measurements. Photos by Nicole Gutiérrez, Iana Grullón, & Carmel Dill.

  • Isabel Loza taught me to collect, analyze and identify data with the Soil Flux System. In the picture below, arrows point at: (left) the infrared gas analyzer and multiplexer, and (right) the long-term chamber.

Soil gas sampling equipment. Photos by Carmel Dill-Cruz.

  • Performed routine sampling with William Mejía, from a surface lysimeter, point lysimeter, and HOBO sensors data collectors. I also collected and sorted leaf litter.

Point and surface lysimeter sampling. Photos by (left) Carmel Dill, and (right) William Mejía.

  • Worked with Iana Grullón in the laboratory doing sample grinding and learned about sample organization and storage.

Soil sample grinding. Photos by Iana Grullón, Carmel Dill, & Nicole Gutiérrez.

Not only it was incredible to be able to experience real life field and laboratory work in a short amount of time, but everything I did was a 100% hands-on experience. Whenever I had questions, the team was more than happy to answer them.

Throughout my internship I always carried a journal with me wherever I went, taking notes, recording the process of everything I learned, but also making sure I understood the purpose of these experiments.

Since I am also at the point in my life where I am researching and starting the application process to college, I asked all the instructors here dozens of questions about the college process, and any advice that they had to share. Thanks to these conversations and the information they offered, I learned a lot about the college journey, and it helped ease much of the anxiety I had about it, clarify doubts about the science career and the path to working in this field. Dr. Tana Wood, the project’s PI, sat down with me on various occasions, and dedicated time to explain the project and its purpose, and the scientific career with all it entitles.

Overall, the opportunity I was given to work with TRACE was such an eye-opening experience, as both a student and a person. The internship helped me narrow down what I want to study in college and beyond. I gained valuable insight about real life field work, scientific situations, and the value of in-person experience over just reading about it. The internship helped me realize what I’m comfortable with, what I enjoy, and gifted me a completely new perspective going forward towards college.

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