Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.
Hello first graders. I cannot believe that is it June already! This school year I’ve loved introducing you to our scientists of the month, Penny, Philipp, Anne-Marike, Pete, Becky, Michael, Jenny and David. We have one more scientist to meet before school’s out for the year – I’m happy to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Boon, a hydroecologist. I asked her questions about her job as a scientist to learn more about what she does. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.
At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.
Erin: What type of scientist are you?
Sarah: I’m a hydroecologist, which means I study where water comes from, where it goes, and how it interacts with living things. I’m particularly interested in how snow interacts with trees, and what happens to streams – and the fish in them – when snow melts. I study how healthy trees catch snow compared to trees killed by mountain pine beetle or wildfire. I also look at how melting snow changes the temperature of mountain streams, and what affect that has on at-risk salmonids like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.
Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
Sarah: I did an undergraduate degree in Physical Geography with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, on Canada’s Vancouver Island. I took a lot of courses about landscapes and how to measure and observe them. I wish I’d taken some biology courses – but I didn’t realize at the time that I’d get into that kind of work. I did the co-operative education program, which means you work for 4 or 8 months and then go to school for 4 months. This was really helpful in getting great job experience, meeting new people, and paying for my tuition. After five years in Victoria I moved to Edmonton, Alberta to do my PhD in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. I finished in 2003 and now live in Lethbridge, Alberta (after 2 years in Prince George, British Columbia as a ‘substitute’ professor).
Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?
Sarah: I work as a university professor, so I do research, teach classes, and supervise grad students. This means I spend part of my time in the office and part in the field.
When I’m in the office, I stare at the computer screen a lot more than I’d like. I write research grant applications, send emails, write lectures for each of my classes, and much more. When I’m not at my computer, I’m either in a meeting or in front of a class, teaching. Most of my office days zip by really quickly, and I wonder where the day went and why I didn’t get more done.
I’m in the field once every two weeks during between late fall, just before the snow comes, to late spring when the last of the snow has melted. These are the days I enjoy the most about my job. I stay in a cabin near the field site with my research assistants and/or grad students, and am up early making plans for the day, including what kind of work needs to be done, what kind of gear is required, and how to access the site with all that gear. Once that’s all worked out (and breakfast has been eaten and a good lunch packed up), we either hike, ATV and/or snowmobile to the field site.
Once we get to the site, we take a lot of different measurements. We download the our automated stations, which are recording temperature, rainfall, stream water level, and more. We also collect snow cores, measure tree height and diameter, take photographs of the forest canopy, dig snow pits, and measure how fast the stream is moving. The best part is that you get to spend the days outside in the woods, enjoying the outdoors.
At the end of the day, back in the cabin, we go over our notes and the files we downloaded. We talk about what seems to be going on based on our measurements, and about what we need to do the next day. Then we play cards or go to the pub.
Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?
Sarah: I became a scientist because, at the time, I thought it was the one thing that I needed someone else to teach me. We can all read history books, novels, poetry, and political theory, then discuss these books with friends and colleagues to figure out what they mean to us and how they’re important to our lives. But the scientific mindset is something you have to train your brain in. I also felt science was more credible than humanities.
Having spent 18 years in science, I now realize that humanities and science can be equally credible. Also – while you do need to train your brain to think scientifically – it needs to be trained to work in the humanities, as well. And finally, you likely won’t get far in understanding certain books and theories if you don’t have someone to work with who can guide your inquiry. So the main reasons I became a scientist – which made sense at the time – actually aren’t entirely true.
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Sarah: Being outdoors, observing the landscape and trying to understand how it works.
Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?
Sarah: I actually don’t get summers off. A lot of people think that professors only work from September to May, and have holidays from June to August. Since I’m so busy with office work and field work during the school term, the summer is my time to catch up on writing research papers, spend time with my grad students in the field, and prepare some of my classes for the fall.
Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?
Sarah: I like most things outdoors as long as they’re not extreme – for example, I prefer cross-country skiing over downhill skiing, and hiking over trail running. I enjoy nature photography, and am a science writer in my spare time. As a writer, I also love to read: novels, mysteries, memoirs, non-fiction – if it’s good, I’ll read it. I do a lot of gardening, and get a kick out of eating food that I’ve grown myself. I also have hunting dogs (flat-coated retrievers) that I enjoy training and working with.
What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Sarah about her work as a scientist? Like always, be sure to leave them in the comments!
Now that we’ve come to the end of the school year, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who volunteered to participate in the Scientist of the Month segment. Everyone who participated did so with their own personal time, and was incredibly thoughtful and dedicated to answering the kids’ questions and finding ways to explain their work. I enjoyed working with everyone and learning about all of your research myself! Doing these interviews was so much fun that I’ve decided to make the Scientist of the Month a regular segment next school year too, so it will be back in the fall with a new batch of students and scientists!