As the Site and Research Manager for Harvard University’s Harvard Forest, Audrey Barker Plotkin organizes and oversees the many research projects that operate on the 3700 wooded acres. In addition to managing the site, Barker Plotkin also coordinates the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, and studies long-term forest development using permanent plots and experiments testing how forests respond to events such as weather disturbances and insect outbreaks. One of the best parts of her job, Barker Plotkin says, is mentoring undergraduate students during Harvard’s Summer Program in Ecology. Given Barker Plotkin’s wealth of experience, it’s safe to say her students are in good hands.
Not only is Barker Plotkin well versed in her field with a biology degree from Carleton College and a Master of Science degree in Forestry from the University of Maine, she also has taken advantage of multiple professional development opportunities along the way. Among these, Barker Plotkin participated in a semester-long research project in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Environmental Sciences Division.
“I was an intern in Art Stewart’s aquatic ecology lab at ORNL in 1990, during the first semester of my junior year of college. My project explored the abiotic and biotic causes of mortality to a stream-dwelling snail,” Barker Plotkin said.
During her internship, Barker Plotkin designed and conducted experiments to determine which environmental stressors most strongly affected snail mortality. She analyzed the effects of burial in gravel (a natural event caused by flood events) versus predation by crayfish, to determine which was more likely to shorten the snails’ lifespan. Throughout her studies, she was aided by Art Stewart and postdocs in his group.
“I remember feeling somewhat timid at the beginning of the internship, and spending most of my time reading background literature. Finally, one of my mentors announced that it was time for me to get started on a project. Fortunately, that push was enough to get me going on designing some cool experiments,” Barker Plotkin recalled.
Even now, Barker Plotkin uses that experience for motivation. “I do still have a tendency to want to exhaustively review prior work before I begin, but I remember the nudge from ORNL and now take a more iterative approach to background research and doing new research.”
While researching at ORNL, Barker Plotkin gained hands-on experience that included visiting local streams at night to bait crayfish with chicken livers. Even though the lab setting with lab benches interspaced between tanks of live fish was a noteworthy lab environment, her favorite part of the internship was the field study.
“I enjoyed visiting the streams on the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Reservation. I also loved learning how to drive a 4x4 truck. Twenty-five years later, I still enjoy driving on rough woods roads,” Barker Plotkin said.
In addition to learning how to drive on rough terrain, Barker Plotkin credits a greater understanding of the scientific process to her time at ORNL. By interning in a lab that included multiple scientists, post-docs, students and support staff, she gained a greater understanding of the progress that can be made by cohesive research among multiple scientists.
Now Barker Plotkin manages her own summer research projects, and encourages students to take advantage of programs like the opportunities provided in ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division. Even though researching at a large national laboratory can seem daunting, she assures prospective students that being in a specific lab fosters a close-knit research environment. In addition, the resources provided by large-scale research venues expose students to a large selection of research and researchers.
“It is a great opportunity as an undergraduate to collaborate with scientists at many career stages, so try to make the most of interacting with people and learning about their career paths,” Barker Plotkin said.