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Westward Ho! – the road to RMBL

Me and my hat en route to Colorado

When the train jostled me awake somewhere West of Omaha, Nebraska, a few hours after crossing the Mississippi River for the first time in my life, I thought I knew what I wanted out of life. I had just finished Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, my 18th book of the year thus far, I had the comically large white Stetson I determined I needed for my journey “Out West” perched atop my head and I was headed towards the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (or RMBL), a biological field station about eight miles north of Crested Butte, Colorado, where I planned to spend my summer doing botanical research alongside some of the most prominent ecologists and natural scientists in the nation. I was an environmental science major and proud of it.

Over the course of the previous academic term, I applied to 12 different REUs and summer research positions. REUs, or Research Experiences for Undergraduates, are programs funded by the National Science Foundation that allow students from small colleges, like Antioch, and other institutions that may not be flush with scientific resources to spend the summer studying at a large research institution, typically a big university, or a field station, as was the case with the position I accepted. I ended up getting two offers from the pool of programs I applied to, one of them was an REU near Battle Creek Michigan, and the other a spot in the undergraduate education program at RMBL. Though the research I would have been working on in Michigan sounded interesting, I could not resist the romantic notions I had about spending my summer living in a rustic cabin in the Colorado Rockies.

Me and Ethan Marcus at the Colorado Statehouse

Since REU positions typically do not begin until early June, as was the case with RMBL, and the Antioch co-op term started all the way back in April, I spent the better part of two months preparing for my trip. As my train neared Denver and the blue-gray outline of the Rockies slowly grew across the horizon, I could already tell my time pouring over borrowed travel guides and every book on Colorado that I could find in the Olive Kettering Library was going to pay off. I had made arrangements to stay with Ethen Marcus (class of 2019), an Antioch alumnus who had recently moved to the city to start a business as a dinner party chef, and reserved tickets for the both of us at practically every cultural attraction in Denver that I could get us into for free. Between the museums, the statehouse and their phenomenal cooking, I could not have had a more pleasant layover on the front range.    

Field Botany and Other Perils 

Taking notes at Warner Point (named for Mark Warner)

My experience at RMBL, however, did not end up being nearly as sublime. I did many wonderful things during my time there, like climb a mountain, hike across the continental divide, learn how to trap small mammals, do transects to estimate bird populations, spend time up close and personal with animals I had only ever seen in books and explore the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a National Park established in large part by another Antioch alumni, Mark Warner (class of 1918).

I also encountered the minor inconveniences one would expect from staying somewhere without cell service or a single indoor bathroom, like for instance being woken up in the middle of the night by a deer mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) scurrying across my face, or having my lunch get stolen by a Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) that had somehow made its way into my living room. Additionally, I faced a few unexpected hurdles, like the weeklong bout of Covid that landed me in a quarantine tent during the hottest part of the summer or the rockslide that delayed my train home by nearly 11 hours.

A view of RMBL and the nearby Gothic Mountain

But the primary challenge I faced came from the jarring transition between studying science in the diverse, accepting, interdisciplinary environment that is Antioch and doing research in a markedly more single-minded and hegemonic environment. I began the summer working with a team investigating how changes in temperature affect the biomass and respiration rates of alpine meadows. Our lab group worked well with each other and I was quite successful in my role as a laboratory assistant.      

Time’s Arrow – retracing the footsteps of a pioneering woman ecologist 

Dr. Barclay at work

However, I ended up returning to my interdisciplinary roots and finished out the field season putting together a project looking into the life and legacy of Dr. Harriet George Barclay, a botanist who studied and taught at RMBL for nearly six decades starting in 1929, one year after the field station was founded. Despite collecting over 2,000 herbarium plates (pressed, dried plant specimens preserved by scientists) and teaching countless students, she never published a single scientific paper in an academic journal. Her contributions to ecology are unquestionable but have more or less been ignored in the historical record.

One of the first herbarium plates collected by Dr. Barclay at RMBL in 1929

To remedy this gap in knowledge and help to give this remarkable early ecologist some of the recognition she deserves, I utilized ArcGIS (a map-making computer software), my previous experience doing archival research, my environmental science knowledge and the writing skills I honed working as a student journalist for The Antioch Record to create an interactive map of her travels and to compile a fairly thorough biography of her time at RMBL. 

The first herbarium plate I prepared at RMBL in 2023

I thought spending the summer at one of the most prestigious inland research stations in the country would steadfastly secure my resolve to continue studying environmental science at Antioch and beyond. However, after finding as much joy as I did pouring through old newspaper records and connecting research modalities usually kept in separate academic departments, I feel I might be better served by following a more nuanced path than the straight-forward one typically laid out for scientists.

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