By Lee Anna Sherman
On her first-ever research trip, Caitlyn Clark trudged up and down hundreds of spongy hummocks spanning miles of arctic tundra, all the while swatting at giant mosquitoes and scanning for hungry polar bears. She was in Manitoba to collect data about the habitats of boreal frogs and stickleback fish for Earthwatch Institute Student Challenge Awards Program.
For a lot of people, the bumpy, buggy, beary expedition would have been their last-ever research trip. Clark, though, was enchanted. Having to sign a polar bear release form — and then spotting three of the great white predators within the first 10 minutes of arriving at the campsite — was an adrenaline rush. And those monster mosquitoes? They just made everything more amazing. The swarms of juicy bugs brought out hordes of insect eaters, which in turn enticed the meat eaters.
“There’s a huge mosquito population that bursts forth,” says Clark, who was a student at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego when she went to Manitoba. “We had to wear full mosquito-net gear and Deet up every morning. It was ridiculous. But the wildlife just erupts. The food web is so pronounced!”
After 10 days on the tundra, her rudder was set.
“I knew that I could do this for the rest of my life,” recalls Clark, now an Oregon State University Honors College sophomore. Her grin telegraphs her delight. “I love research.”
But she wants her research firmly connected to solutions. That’s why she chose OSU’s Ecological Engineering program, whose focus is on “optimizing the interface between humankind and the environment,” according to its homepage.
“The mindset of the program is systems theory, understanding how all the pieces interact so we can find more natural ways to solve problems,” she says.
Solutions will be top-of-mind for Clark this summer on the rocky shores of County Cork, where she’ll be studying purple urchins in Lough Hyne, the nation’s first marine reserve. (A “lough” in this sense means a bay or inlet.) One of four American students chosen for the International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) project in Ireland, Clark will be looking for clues to the plunging numbers of urchins, which are key members of tidal-pool communities. The suspect list is topped by the invasive brown algae, Sargassum muticum.
“We’ll be looking at threats to the community structure of the lough,” says Clark, who will be the youngest member of the IRES team and one of only two American undergrads. “We’ll be trying to figure out why the urchin population is declining — is it predation? Do they need more sheltered areas? Is the algae making the rocks too slippery for the urchins to attach?”
Once those questions are answered, Clark’s devotion to solutions will come in: “Is there anything we can do to fix it and, if so, should we step in?”
Already, Clark is a seasoned marine researcher, collecting baseline data on bottom-dwelling organisms for Professor Sarah Henkel at OSU’s Benthic Ecology Lab/Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center. Before flying to Ireland, Clark and her teammates will spend five days at an orientation workshop in the Coos Bay area at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, run by the University of Oregon. But first, she’ll be navigating Oregon rivers as a raft guide for Oregon State’s Adventure Leadership Institute during the early summer months.
Clark is eager to see the “dramatic landscape” of the Emerald Isle. But as a native Northwesterner, she can be tough to impress. When she first saw the boreal forests of Manitoba, she remarked, “These trees are pretty short.” The scientist leading the trip turned to look at her. “You’re the one from Oregon, aren’t you?” he said.
For more information about education abroad opportunities for OSU students, contact the International Degree & Education Abroad (IDEA) office at 541-737-3006.