My Research Internship: An education beyond expectations

August 15, 2019

This article was written by Erin Flinchbaugh, 2019 BRIT Summer Intern and student at University of Texas at Arlington. Erin interned with Conservation Botanist Kim Taylor, working with the NatureServe Conservation Status Ranks and Mapping Rare Plants on Roadsides projects within the Texas Plant Conservation Program.

Beginning my internship at BRIT, I expected many of my passions to be shared by the people surrounding me: a passion for our natural world, its conservation, restoration, and preservation were the common ground we shared. When I started my internship I didn’t expect to find myself invested in the direction of tiny hairs faced on a stem, squatting down in the dirt (and once an ant pile) to further inspect and then debate the trichomes. 

This summer I was mentored by Kim Taylor, BRIT's conservation botanist. As a research intern my summer project was to conduct a conservation evaluation for one of the rare species of plants in North Texas, Echinacea atrorubens (also known as the Topeka purple cone flower). This meant compiling a large range of data through herbarium specimens, iNaturalist, and field work on what populations of E. atrorubens exist and thrive today. I was lucky to be put on a project that taught me so many skills that will be useful to me pursue a career in research biology. I learned how to better conduct field surveys, collect seed for several different purposes, utilize a herbarium, handle large amounts of data across several different programs, map in QGIS, and use a scanning electron microscope. All of these skills culminated into an evaluation that will be submitted to NatureServe to officially change the conservation status of the plant.

black and white scanning electron micrograph of a seed
E. atrorubens seed as seen with SEM

In addition to gaining invaluable experience and knowledge, working at BRIT over the summer allowed me to make a small but meaningful contribution to the scientific community. The conservation study I completed will be submitted to NatureServe on both a state and global level, and will hopefully change the official ranking. This ranking can allow a plant to have some level of protection, like the Dalea reverchonii Kim and I helped conduct a seed rescue for. Every intern who works in the research program makes at least one herbarium specimen, although many of us end up making many more. These specimens can be used by future researchers for projects just like the one I had this summer. For my specific study I made four herbarium specimens that will now live at BRIT and one to be sent to another herbarium. 

image of herbarium specimen
Herbarium specimen that I collected, mounted, labeled, and digitized

In addition to the project I was in charge of completing, I was encouraged to take part in several other projects on a smaller scale. For example, another research intern was in charge of surveying a prairie to track its restoration. I was invited to tag along for a day and help survey so I could get a better idea of what prairie restoration and surveying a small area in high detail looked like. I was also invited to accompany Kim to a seed rescue for another rare plant in North Texas. Working with the Texas Department of Transportation as well as Texas Parks and Wildlife, we were able to take seed from a population of Dalea reverchonii that was going to be disturbed  - if not completely destroyed - by an upcoming road project. We mapped the location of each plant in addition to taking seed so that when the project is finished, the exact impact can be evaluated. If the population is dramatically depleted by the project, the seeds collected can be used to help restore it. 

people in reflective vests and hard hats working by the side of the highway
Working with TxDOT and TPWD to rescue D. reverchonii seeds

My advice to anyone going into an internship with BRIT would be to take advantage of every opportunity presented to you! From tea times with former interns to tag along days on other projects, BRIT provides so many ways to get a better idea of what is out there and how to become a part of it. If you show a clear interest in something the mentors at BRIT are so willing to try to help you gain experience.

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