We are very excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2015, Jennifer MacMillan. Jennifer is working on an Undergraduate Honours thesis at Queen’s University, and just got back from exchange in New Zealand. Today she fills us in on her time in New Zealand.
I flew away to New Zealand nearly a year ago, yet I continue to talk about my experiences as if they just unfolded yesterday. From February to July 2014, I lived in Wellington, New Zealand on an Academic Exchange to Victoria University. I am studying Environmental Biology at my home university in Canada and therefore was beyond excited to enrol in classes and meet professors that provided novel perspectives on ecology, evolution, conservation, and all of the topics that motivate me as a young scientist. Within the first weeks of school, my expectations had already been exceeded. At this university, the instructors and professors have less of an administrative role and split the teaching requirements with more colleagues so they can spend more time on their own research. This resulted in their passions resonating clearly in every single lecture. Furthermore, guest lecturers play a large part in the curriculum and are often a source of intrigue and inspiration. There was one guest lecturer in particular, a Project Manager with the Wellington City Council, whose discussion stimulated my interest in a topic to which I had never been exposed: Restoration Ecology. And thus, my future in education and eventually a career in Biology began to take shape.
Restoration Ecology is an emerging field which focuses on renewing and restoring ecosystems and environments that have been damaged or completely destroyed by either natural or human interactions. There are many of these projects currently in place around the world, often aimed at re-establishing the natural structure and function of lakes and streams, or removing unwanted pests while re-introducing threatened species to increase biodiversity on islands. After being introduced to this area of science, I began volunteering with the Wellington City Council at the Botanic Gardens. BEST DECISION EVER. Three mornings a week before class I spent two or three hours with my hands covered in soil. I still believe that there is no better way to start the day. Alongside full time curators and horticulturalists, I helped maintain paths and flower beds, kept records of stored seeds, and managed seedlings in the nursery. One week we planted over three thousand tulips! Every morning I would come back from work with twigs in my hair or leaves stuck to my clothes while I ate breakfast with my housemate or Skyped my mom. I was the happiest kid in the world and was loving every minute of it. Then it got better….
Every month, City Council Project Managers (like the lady who receives my most inspiring guest lecture of all time award) hire volunteers to assist in restoration projects around the city of Wellington. In May, the project at hand was restoring a forest corridor between a park and a golf course where a massive wind storm had taken down almost all of the trees the previous year. A team of people had already cleared most of the trunks and debris from the site so when our group from the Gardens rolled up at 8 am we had a relatively clean canvas to begin our planting. The goal: plant three thousand native New Zealand trees and shrubs by dinner time. I had personally never planted anything larger than a tulip bulb but I expected tree planting to be fairly straightforward. When the crew leader started leading everyone in warm up and stretching exercises, I realized I was not entirely prepared for what I signed up for. The next four hours were the most physically demanding hours of my life. The plants we were putting into the ground are called PB3s and require a hole about a foot and a half deep. At first, I was digging with the speed and zeal of a groundhog making its den….and then the blisters formed and the soreness set in and I felt like a sloth with a shovel.
Halfway through the day I was getting the hang of it; nonetheless, lunch time was welcomed with aching arms and we all sat together eating our packed lunches. I wish I had made ten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that day for two reasons: 1) Because I was starving, and 2) Because some of the Kiwis (people from New Zealand) I was with had never experienced the taste of a PB&J. Just as we were putting away our bags, two cars filled with more volunteers arrived. Ten business men and women from the corporate HP office climbed out of their vehicles with matching t-shirts, clean pants and plastic shovels. My initial reaction was to shake my head and call them amateurs, but then I realized I had been in their shoes only four hours prior. Regardless of our backgrounds or the roughness of our hands, we were all there for the same reasons: to express our profound love and appreciation for nature while simultaneously making this planet a cleaner and greener place, one tree at a time. So, we paired up with the new volunteers and took turns digging and planting the remaining trees. At the end of the day, when the last hole was filled, we all went our separate ways – bonded over the satisfaction that one day those trees will grow into a beautiful forest and provide habitat for birds, insects and other wonderful creatures unique to New Zealand.
The connections people share with each other and with the environment is one of the main reasons I am so passionate about Biology and especially field work. I have been on many other field trips over the years and have also worked as a Field Assistant for my current Honours Thesis Supervisor. However, I have never had such an enlightening and heart warming experience as that first field day in New Zealand. People are amazing creatures and regardless of their line of work, genuinely love to be a part of and protect the natural world. For this reason, I think more adults should go on field trips. The resulting public support for science benefits everyone and every environment. Now get off the internet and go outside and enjoy it!
Jennifer is an outdoor enthusiast who loves meeting people and exchanging stories wherever she goes. She is about to graduate from Queen’s University and hopes to move to the Rockies to pursue more education and eventually a career in Restoration Ecology. Biking and hiking are two of her greatest passions, matched only by her love for family, friends, and this little thing called life.