Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Lab

Welcome to Holdsworth Hall on the campus of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), my home for the next six months. The campus is largely deserted now, graduation having happened about a week ago, and my supervisor, Theresa Portante, herself a grad student, is leading her team in the field for the summer. I will be pretty much alone for the next three months.

There is not much to set my workspace apart from any other scientific technician, but I am grateful for a very nice microscope, illuminator, computer with internet, a small clock radio, and lots of ethyl alcohol. No, the alcohol is not for stress relief! It is the preservative used for the trap samples I will be sorting through.

Right now I am sorting through pitfall trap samples taken on each of last year’s study plots, all of them in wetland habitats that dry out during the heat of summer. Each sample comes in a labeled plastic cup with a locking lid. My job is to segregate the invertebrates contained therein into separate shell vials. Each “order” level of classification gets its own vial. It is not as easy as it sounds. Globular springtails and wingless barklice are easily confused, for example.

Lunch is my chance to get outdoors and breathe some fresh air after sniffing alcohol all morning. My favorite haunt thus far is the ”Campus Pond,” a surprisingly lush, well-landscaped water feature. Aside from being mobbed by ducks accustomed to being fed by everyone that lingers on the shore, I find it is a peaceful spot to enjoy a brown bag meal.

At some point I hope to include an entry in this blog that details what it is like to process a sample. Meanwhile, coming soon….let sleeping wasps lie, giant ichneumons, and other stories from the field.

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