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Summer internships keep hands-on learning going, despite pandemic

Rachel Hardegree spent her summer watching for feral hogs in Japan.

But her work didn’t require a passport or travel during a global pandemic. Instead, thanks to a summer internship program offered by the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, she stayed safely on her laptop in her living room, sifting through thousands of images caught by wildlife cameras around the Fukushima Nuclear Zone.

Ben Carr sets up a novel object for urban coyotesHer project was one of more than 20 opportunities offered to students this past summer after the COVID-19 pandemic squashed summer plans. Most Warnell students spend their summers working at an internship that gives them valuable hands-on experiences in their chosen field. But when travel restrictions shuttered most programs, the school looked at ways it could step in and fill the gaps.

“It was one way we could offer assistance to our students, who typically rely on summer internships for income as well as experience,” says dean Dale Greene, who tossed out the idea in late spring to faculty and school administrators to test the feasibility of the idea. Thanks to cost savings from other projects put on hold—as well as funds available through the support of private donations to Warnell—there was room in the budget to offer an array of two-month internships. The dean matched faculty grant funds, dollar-for-dollar, to fund the internships.

In the end, students were able to apply for opportunities across nearly all majors—and some projects even adjusted to accommodate a student’s particular interest. Some did involve travel or working in a remote location, but it was possible to continue to maintain health and safety precautions. Others, like Hardegree, sifted through data from their home offices.

“It was really cool—I felt like I had the inside scoop of the area, which is weird because it’s halfway across the world and I’d never been there before,” says Hardegree, who assisted associate professor James Beasley in his work researching animals in nuclear zones. Hardegree started the summer with 46,000 images and was tasked with categorizing what was in them.

Beasley sent her a hard drive of images, and after downloading them into a database, Hardegree, a senior wildlife sciences major, used software to note what was in each picture. “There might have been five photos of just one pig, so I’d click on the pig, categorize it as male or female or unknown, adult or juvenile. Then I’d have to determine what pigs I’d already seen or if they were in groups.”

GPS work done by Jennifer PalmerSenior Jennifer Palmer also spent her summer looking at images. But in her case, she was assisting with a project using geospatial data to assess the change in tree canopy over time. Her database, which was created and maintained by professor Pete Bettinger and research assistant Krista Merry, is part of a land use change study of the southern coastal plain using Google Earth.

But the researchers were able to adjust the project to better reflect Palmer’s major, which is community forestry and arboriculture. Using ArcGIS and Google Earth Pro, Palmer worked to calculate urban greenery across several cities. “Krista generated 10,000 random field points for me to investigate. I labeled each one as time went by, from 2007 to 2018, noting which was a building, a road, a sidewalk, etc.,” says Palmer. “We used it to calculate the urban greenery, or the number of trees in a city, and see, as time went on and development occurred, did the city implement more tree measures or did they have more taken down?”

Her work may develop into a research paper. It also gave her a better understanding of software she may be using in her field, as well as an understanding of data collection and the “behind the scenes” of a research study.

But not all Warnell students found themselves behind computers over the summer. For example, Ben Carr, a junior wildlife sciences major, spent some of his summer crunching data from wildlife cameras—but also logged time in the field, installing baited posts and cameras to track urban and rural coyote movements. Others, like Miranda Hopper, Dacee Blawn and Jack Buban, found a home away from home out in the field, where they spent their summer working directly with wildlife.

“First, we were living in a (Department of Natural Resources) check station; they’re not made for the long-term, so they pulled up a trailer and it has four beds,” says Hopper, who worked as a deer technician as part of a long-term research project studying fawn survival in the North Georgia Mountains. She and three others cocooned together for the summer, spending long days in the woods searching for newborn fawns. “I took a shower with three sliders and two cockroaches today,” she adds, laughing, during an interview in mid-July. “But I’m living out in the woods and it feels very nice and peaceful. It could be worse, for sure.”

While Hopper was stationed in Suches, a town in the North Georgia mountains, Blawn and Buban worked with Atlantic shortnose sturgeon in the Altamaha and Savannah rivers. The project, overseen by assistant research scientist Adam Fox, captures, tags, assesses and releases sturgeon to better understand their population dynamics.

Students stand with a sturgeonUsually, says Blawn, the summer assessments are done by volunteers. But because of the pandemic, it wasn’t possible to manage a rotating crew on a boat. So, Blawn and Buban were half of a four-person crew that lived and worked together on the project. “We were working together all summer, so we would not go out on the weekends and to respect each other’s situation, one person would go grocery shopping each week,” adds Blawn. “There were also restrictions on who could be in the field house. It worked out fine for us; we were pretty isolated in the group, and when we were out in public, like taking the boat to the shop, we wore masks.”

Plus, added Blawn, being out on a boat all day catching sturgeon (“They’re very slimy,” she notes) doesn’t make you want to head out afterward for a night out on the town.

The experience was exactly what Blawn needed as she transitions from college to career. She graduated in May and would not have been able to be a part of the project as a volunteer. Now, she can begin her job search with an even greater depth of knowledge.

“This was a phenomenal thing to be able to partake in. And Warnell did a really great job of creating internships for students who didn’t have them,” she says. “Everything I had applied for ended up getting shut down. But this was great because I got additional hands-on experience that I can use in future jobs, such as boat handling and net mending.”

In a way, the Warnell-sponsored internships made a batch of lemonade out of what otherwise would just be lemons. For example, Palmer’s summer plans originally included two educational trips—one to learn about longleaf pine and another to take a deep dive into urban forestry, both with Warnell faculty members. When both were canceled, Palmer’s summer looked desolate.

But now, she’s starting a fall semester with new data collection and software experience—plus a greater appreciation for urban forestry. “I had not done this type of work before,” she says. “But now I’ve also learned my way around an Excel spreadsheet, as well as an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to generating points and bounds.”



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