January 7, 2013 by Erin Spencer
I decided to do a research project next summer. At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just knew I wanted to do something. I’ve always had this romanticized perception of scientific research—I love the idea that you’re delving into a topic in a new and unexplored way. But mostly, to me, research means that you’ve found something that you care so passionately about that you can’t help yourself from wanting to find out more.
So…what am I that passionate about? Good question.
I toyed around with a lot of ideas over the next couple of weeks. I have a solid background in marine science and conservation, so I decided to tackle a project related to the ocean. But that was about as far as I got. There were certain limitations I faced—my project would absolutely require travel, and I couldn’t easily jet off to some far away ocean for a summer. I don’t have an overwhelming amount of lab experience, so I wouldn’t be comfortable pursuing a project solely based on lab work. I considered working in someone else’s lab for the summer to get more experience, but I decided that defeated the purpose. I wanted this project to be mine, not someone else’s.
The idea came to me at the end of summer vacation on the way home from the gym. As I cruised down the highway, a thought hit me. Instead of stretching my skills to fit my research project, I need to design my project around my strengths. I have more experience with media than I do lab techniques—why not capitalize on that? I’ve blogged for W&M since my freshman year, and even blogged for the Admission Office when I interned there last semester. I’ve studied photography since I was 13 and learned basic film editing techniques last year. Lastly, I’m addicted to every form of social media (but who isn’t?). I decided to combine my love of media with my passion for the ocean in an interdisciplinary interview-based project in the Florida Keys.
I picked the Florida Keys because I’m familiar with the area, which is important for my first solo research project. I then decided to focus on a topic that has important marine conservation applications, specifically the proliferation of an invasive species called lionfish. Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish have spread throughout the Caribbean, causing extensive damage to the local reef fish populations. My project will consist of dozens of interviews up and down the Keys focusing on how the locals have adapted to the invasion, and how they are taking lionfish control into their own hands. This includes chefs that are using them on their menus, dive masters that are teaching their students to hunt and kill them, and non-profits that have formed to spread awareness about the problem.
Now that I’ve come up with the idea, the real work starts. I’ve applied for two different grants to fund the project, one through the W&M Charles Center, and one through the National Geographic Young Explorers program. All in all, this means pages and pages of project descriptions, numerous calls to contacts in the Keys, number crunching to fit my budget, and hours of background research on the topic. And this is all before the project technically even starts. On top of my other schoolwork, the grant writing often feels like a full time job. But because I found a topic that I am truly passionate about, every late night spent reading about lionfish isn’t a chore. Instead, I view it as one step closer to reaching my goal of producing a quality project.
I could keep going about the background of my project, my plan of attack, and my grant proposals, but I won’t (although there will certainly be future posts about it). The most important thing is that I’ve found a project that truly excites me. By allowing myself to take a different approach to the traditional research project, I’ve found a project that is perfectly suited to my interests and abilities. As a result, I’ve never been more engaged in my academics, and am genuinely antsy to get to work. And at the end of the summer, when I’ve completed the project, I’ll be able to look back and say, that was all me.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get back to work!