A federal grant will pay college students to do biological field research through the University of Alaska Southeast.
The National Science Foundation awarded $219,000 to two UAS professors to be spent over the next three years. The money pays for eight to 10 undergraduates a year to work with UAS faculty or their colleagues in state or federal agencies.
``You can read and read and read about science in textbooks,'' said Brendan Kelly, a UAS assistant professor of biology who was one of the grant recipients. ``It's very different from being involved in the process.''
UAS doesn't offer a graduate program in biology, and it's unusual for undergraduates to work on real field research projects, faculty members said.
Some undergrads have been helping UAS scientists with field research for several years, but without pay and for shorter periods.
Seal watch: Oriana Harding, a student at the University of Alaska Southeast, watches a ringed seal on the Beaufort Sea ice.
The grants will help level the playing field for students. Doing field research helps students get jobs in science or win admission to graduate schools. But some students couldn't afford to go on research projects because they needed paying summer work, Kelly said.
``If I hadn't have participated in that undergrad program, I definitely wouldn't be where I am now,'' said Raychelle Daniel. She studied harbor seals on Tugidak Island near Kodiak as a student and now works for the state Department of Fish and Game as a technician.
Kelly, who studied ringed seal behavior in the Beaufort Sea and walrus in the Chukchi Sea with undergrads as assistants, said he's pleased with what he's seen in the students.
``To me the most dramatic thing is the change in academic maturity,'' he said.
Students who have worked on field research read primary scientific literature, not just textbooks. Their work continues after they return to Juneau, where they analyze data and sometimes present reports at scientific meetings.
``They suddenly become so strongly self-motivated,'' Kelly said. ``That's what we're trying to do - to wean them from us and make them independent scientists.''
Oriana Harding, a UAS junior, spent a month in each of the past two summers on the ringed seal project in the Beaufort Sea, where she'll return this year.
``It's why I'm in school,'' she said. ``It keeps me interested. That's what I want to do. It allows me to see all the applicable side of what I learn in the classroom.''
Scientists don't know much about the ringed seal population because data is gathered from the air, and they don't know how much of the seals' lives is spent on the surface. They hope to develop a correction factor for the aerial surveys.
In the first season, Harding helped train dogs to sniff out the seals' breathing holes in the ice and their haul-out caves on the surface. In the second season, researchers captured seals, attached transmitters and tracked their movements.
There's nothing more satisfying and rewarding than making observations of animals that perhaps no one else has made, then sitting around the Coleman stove talking about it, said Beth Mathews, an assistant professor of biology at UAS who also wrote the grant.
Mathews has used undergrads in field research on harbor seals and Steller sea lions in Glacier Bay. Some of the data-gathering is labor intensive, such as watching how long an animal rests on an iceberg.
``Without the students, I couldn't afford to collect it, or I'd have to argue to get that much time for an employee,'' she said.