Director’s Letter April 2024

The Marmot Abides

“One generation passeth, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-9, King James Version)

Like “The Dude”, the marmot abides. “I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.” – The Big Lebowski.

Similar to a rug that ties a room together, the Marmoteers make RMBL complete. Team Marmot (see adjoining article), led by Dr. Dan Blumstein (UCLA,) arrived in mid-April. The marmot soap opera would be incomplete if the team arrived too late as Gothic’s marmots start digging up through the snow in April to mate. The team sojourned from the busy highways of Los Angeles to don snowshoes at the Snodgrass trailhead for the snowy trek to Gothic. This year’s field team is led by UCLA PhD candidate Taylor Bastian, who is interested in how the environment affects social behavior.

One of the most complete and longest running studies of non-game mammals, the research is unique in terms of its longevity as well as its completeness. Started by Dr. Ken Armitage (Univ. of Kansas) in 1962, marmots have been the target of observation for generations of scientists. The project has grown from an original focus on behavior and lifetime reproductive fitness, to encompass physiology, proteins, and genetics. This makes it possible to connect the dots in unparalleled ways, linking behavior to protein levels in the blood, parsing the role of genetics and the environment in controlling behavior.  Dan and his team not only study the behavior of the marmots but link behavioral differences to lifetime reproductive or evolutionary fitness. For example, in encouraging news for introverts everywhere, less social marmots tend to live longer and have fewer offspring.

While marmots and humans differ in many ways, and the differences extend beyond marmots being stubbier and furrier, counterintuitively those differences provide an opportunity to expand our understanding of humans. For example, while you shouldn’t use marmot research to justify not spending time with friends or family, metabolic aging of marmots drops dramatically during hibernation. Understanding the physiological mechanisms associated with this slow-down may help scientists better understand and manage aging in humans. Indeed, if NASA sends astronauts to distant galaxies, Gothic’s marmots may help show the way to slowing aging during space travel.

Lounging on decks in summer, occasionally stirring to munch on dandelions, just as many movie-goers find deeper meaning in the Dude from the movie The Big Lebowski, I see shades of Zen Bhuddism in Gothic’s marmots. I’m not certain how self-aware they are, but having supported hundreds of scientific papers, it’s clear they offer a path to self-knowledge.

We can all take comfort in how the marmot abides!

To learn more, including what marmots tell us about humans and the world, visit Dr. Blumstein’s Marmot Burrow.

Director’s Letter March 2024

New Insights

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have lived my life, and that which I have done

May He within Himself make pure!” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

An unusually warm April breeze carries the echoes of pulleys, pistons, and bytes across the Elk Mountains as the mists of Brigadoon lift to reveal the wonders of Gothic.

RMBL is changing how scientists come to know ecosystems around the world by integrating engineering and computational sciences into traditional terrestrial field science. From traverse boards (pictured on e-newsletter) that helped 16th century mariners navigate the oceans to Alvin, the deep-sea submersible submarine operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, engineering and computational sciences have always been critical to discovery of the world’s oceans. However, armed with only a pen and notebook, a crafty field biologist can still conduct research worthy of the top science journals.

But the winds of change are blowing in. From using water isotopes in annual growth rings to reconstruct water budgets of trees back hundreds of years, to using spectrometers to infer genetics from patterns of absorption and reflection of light from trees, engineering is not only expanding what we can see, but also making it possible to cost effectively deploy more sensors. And with increased ability to deploy sensors on drones, planes, and satellites, we can efficiently make measurements across entire landscapes. With a dash of field biology and machine learning, we get a change not just in the quantity of data that can be collected, but a transformation in what can be done.

The complexity of environmental systems, the large number of interacting species and nutrient flows, poses challenges to generating universal insights. It’s one thing for a physicist to plot the paths of quarks and another for a myrmecologist to track ants. The park in your neighborhood is nothing like the park on the other side of the city.  What can one tell you about the other? And not only are there lots of parts, but the spatial scales range from bacteria for whom a teaspoon of soil is an entire universe and a day a lifetime, to elephants wandering continents for decades.

Just as engineering opened oceans to exploration and investigation, emerging technology is making it possible for scientists to confront the challenges of environmental complexity. As a transmission uses gears to connect engines and wheels turning at different frequencies, environmental sensors and machine learning can be used to connect biological processes happening on vastly different spatial and temporal scales to unveil the world’s complexity.

Why does this matter? Improving our ability to generalize insights from one ecosystem to another will enable better management of environmental processes such as water, fire, food production, and human disease.  It can also help us better predict complex environmental processes, such as linking local ecological processes that control the flow of carbon in global climate models.

To learn more about RMBL’s partnership with engineers and computational scientists, read the adjoining interview of Dr. Jenifer Blacklock, Director of Western Colorado University’s Partnership Program involving CU-Boulder and the Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering. You can also learn more about the partnership from this article in the Gunnison Country Times, as well as this article in the Crested Butte News about a congressional earmark that RMBL is receiving to use plane-based hyperspectral imagery to better understand fire and drought.

Personally, I long for the days of a remote and quiet Gothic, sitting among snowfields, counting ants. But morally, I embrace seeing RMBL rising to the challenge of harnessing the power of science and technology to enable future generations to serve as strong stewards of Earth’s tapestry of life. Join us in lifting the mists!

Director’s Letter February 2024

Brigadoon

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour. (William Blake)

For better and worse, Gothic is no longer the Brigadoon of the West Elk Mountains. Located in the Scottish Highlands, an enchantment froze the original Brigadoon in time, rendering it invisible and protecting it from change. The mists lifted once a century. Visitors were allowed in, but departures would cause the village to disappear forever.

Decades ago, the number of visitors passing beyond Gothic for an entire winter could be counted in the tens. Now, on sunny days with no avalanche hazard, the track to Gothic is a skiers’ highway, with upwards of a hundred individuals daily. However, a visit to Gothic in winter still involves piercing a veil of snow to reach the edge of a hidden world. Inaccessible by car and largely closed to snowmobiles, the journey can be as simple as a 45-minute ski along a well-trodden track. But when the big storms roll in, Gothic recedes, and the journey extends.

Drifting through the atmospheric boundary layer, individually snowflakes are harmless and beautiful. But until they settle and bond with earlier snow layers, those quaint snowflakes can collectively turn into a seething mass, rushing downhill at speeds up to hundreds of miles an hour and sweeping away all in their path. So some journeys to Gothic start with days of waiting. And once you get started in fresh snow, it is slow going. No glide on the flats. No slide on the downhills. Rather, you punch one foot in front of another, displacing pounds of snow with each step.

The snowpack approaches 10 feet deep in Gothic. You are grateful if there is an easy path into the cabins. It becomes clear why some of the older cabins have outdoor stairs to the second floor. The value of placing building entrances away from where snow slides off roofs becomes obvious as does the futility of constantly replacing cabin decks subject to continual roof avalanches.

Arrival in Gothic is just the start of peering into the hidden world. The next stage is learning to see. Approach the willow cautiously; the ptarmigan will kick their feet, slowly disappearing in the snow, to avoid being seen. Those slide paths in fresh snow on the cabin roofs? Pine martens enjoying first tracks on a powder day, taking some time away from terrorizing squirrels. That bouncing black dot? The black tip of an otherwise all-white weasel on the hunt for voles navigating the thermal layers of the snowpack.

The adjoining article captures how professor Dr. Pat Magee has regularly introduced classes from Western Colorado University to this hidden world. With generous support of our donors, and assistance from the National Science Foundation, RMBL has created a human outpost – cabins supporting up to 40 scientists, students, and staff, along with running water, internet, and most importantly, a knowledge and practice of safe passage into this world of snow.

The irony of being an explorer is that our success destroys that which draws us; our arrival lifts the veil of the unknown. Decades ago, the world had the luxury of a hidden Gothic. But as the importance of understanding and managing the world has become ever more critical, the importance of Gothic as an outpost for students and scientists in a world of snow has emerged. The mists have lifted. Surrounded by a protected landscape that will never be open to convenient travel, arrival in Gothic will always involve a journey. And the lifting of the mists is an enchantment that brings environmental knowledge to the world, acting on individuals as a snowflake floating to earth. But collectively those individuals, the next generation of environmental leaders and scientists, are an avalanche that is transforming how we see and manage the world.

To learn more about Gothic in winter, click on the link for the video of billy barr as The Snow Guardian.

Director’s Letter January 2024

Learning

I have learned that
everything has its own language and that
if I listen carefully to the birds and the creatures,
and even the grasses,
I will hear the sound of God
in the music of the silence.
There are multiple realities surrounding me
and I know that I must keep the eyes of my heart open
to allow all of existence to be.

And I’m glad I was not told
any of these things
else I would not have grown as tall
nor stretched as far.
I am glad these things were kept hidden from me
until I could open the gate to taste and touch,
to smell and feel, and
to discover my self along the way.

(from Learning Life by Catherine Garland, An Elk Mountain Poet)

If RMBL’s education program were a pill you could buy and swallow all the good things students get from working with our scientists and hiking local trails, the RMBL “pill factory” would be worth billions. In the pharmaceutical industry it costs around $1 billion to bring a drug to market. When you get something that works, like the RMBL education program, you can command premium pricing!

Leqembi, recently approved to slow Alzheimer’s, is an interesting example of drug economics. This drug binds to, and clears a plaque associated with Alzheimer’s. While the impact of plaque formation on cognition remains a mystery, when taken by early-stage patients the pill reduces cognitive loss by 30%. Exactly what that means is a bit squishy since the metrics combine disparate categories in arbitrary ways. It is a bit like asking Spinal Tap to turn down their music by 30% given their non-traditional sound system goes to “11”. With an annual cost of $26,500, and the possibility of severe brain bleeding, understanding the cost-benefit of the pill is hard.

On the other hand, the cost-benefit of RMBL is simple. While there has been no double-blind trial, there is no shortage of individuals attesting to the impacts of a summer in Gothic (see adjoining article). My wife, RMBL’s Science Director Dr. Jennifer Reithel, and I feel so strongly about RMBL, that we have dedicated our professional careers to advancing the program. And beyond hundreds of other personal stories, we do have assessment data documenting large self-reported improvements in confidence and ability to do field research. We have even published research that uses an observational control group and finds a major increase in the likelihood of our alumni going on to PhD programs, with an effect size lasting across decades that would make pharmaceutical companies drool.

The economics of the RMBL “pill” go beyond large, long-lasting and demonstrable impacts on individuals. They extend to society. The scientists that RMBL helps grow and develop will go on to become a part of the next generation of environmental leaders. Based upon longitudinal tracking we know our alumni will contribute to the design and implementation of policies that will safeguard ecosystem services, such as clean water and food security, and help ensure the resiliency we will need to adapt to rapid environmental change.

The impact of RMBL can get lost in a steady stream of advertising and marketing. But a donation to support a student scholarship at RMBL isn’t a bitter pill to swallow. Rather, it will change a person’s life and make the world a better place!

Director’s Letter December 2023

Ruby Peak:  A monument to inference and ways of knowing

Ruby Peak stands at a metaphorical point of triangulation on the map of how we know the world involving the West Elk Mountains, 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, and field science.

Edward Howard Ruffner was a minor surveyor who was overshadowed by the four great surveyors of the west, John Wesley Powell, Clarence King, George Wheeler, and Ferdinand Hayden. Funded by the Departments of Interior and War, these surveyors launched major campaigns to measure distance and angle from thousands of locations, using the law of cosines, to generate precise maps.

In contrast to the general surveys, Ruffner’s purpose for visiting the Elk Mountains in 1873 was very specific. Miners were increasingly pushing into Ute territory and Ruffner was tasked with determining the exact location of the 107th Meridian, an imaginary line running over the saddle of Snodgrass and Gothic Mountains (“probably as difficult a line to establish as could have been chosen”) and which established the eastern boundary of the Ute nations in 1868.

Ruby Peak serves as our first metaphorical intersection, where the West Elks and scientific induction cross paths. Ruffner named some of the peaks in the Elk Mountains after scientists, which Hayden refers to as Ruffner’s “Philosophers’ Monuments”. Making a guess, what we now call “Purple” Ruffner named Mt. Spencer (Herbert Spencer, 1820-1903, who coined the term “survival of the fittest”); our “Marcellina” was Mt. Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Huxley, 1825-1895); our “Owen” was named for social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858); our “Whetstone” was originally Mt. Wheatstone (telegraph tinkerer Charles Wheatstone 1802-1875),  and our “Ruby” was likely Ruffner’s Mt. Mill (John Stuart Mill 1806-1873).

John Stuart Mill was interested in the problem of how we can develop general truths from observations of particular situations. While it is one thing to start with general truths and use logic to make deductions, it is an entirely different thing to observe something and thereby infer a general truth. In his book published in 1843, A System of Logic, Mill describes five inductive methods for making just such leaps, using patterns and variability to establish general truths emerging from an understanding of cause and effect.

Ruby Peak, or Mt. Mill, sits on a dike geological formation named the “Dyke”. Similar to how a laccolith is formed when magma intrudes into a sedimentary formation, causing uplifting and creation of a dome, a dike occurs when magma fills seams and cracks that cut across multiple older rock beds. The resultant igneous intrusion in the Dyke was harder than the surrounding sedimentary rock, which eroded away, leaving a striking fin of rocks, or the “Dyke”.

It is amazing how much 19th century geologists were able to figure out despite their inability to conduct planetary experiments (e.g., adding and subtracting volcanoes to worlds). Their ability to correlate observations of the earth’s surface across complex landscapes to infer complex causes brings us to our second metaphorical point of intersection, field science and induction.

Field research at RMBL is distinguished by the wide-ranging tools that scientists deploy to develop insights that inform our general understanding of fundamental environmental processes. From natural history observations, to complex modeling, to experimentation, our scientists deploy a variety of tools to generate insight into the biological processes filling the peaks and valleys around Gothic to change how we see all ecosystems. Hopefully our points of intersection, involving the West Elks, John Stuart Mill, and field science, provide a metaphorical triangulation that explains why the research at RMBL is so impactful. For more, take a look at the adjoining article summarizing major media coverage from 2023.

Thanks to Brian Levine with Mt. Gothic Tomes for introducing me to Ruffner’s map and providing access to original source material.

References:

Lieutenant E.H. Ruffner, Report and Map of a Reconnaissance in the Ute Country Made in 1873.

F.V. Hayden. Annual Report of the US Geological Survey of the Territories Embracing Colorado and Parts of Adjacent Territories; Being a Report of Progress of the Exploration for the Year 1874 (especially pg. 100).

Crested Butte Taylor Park Recreation Topo Map. Latitude 40 Maps.

Jack Shroder, Amy Ellwein, et al. Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Director’s Letter November 2023

The Power of Mitzvah: from Thanksgiving to Hope

 

“A great flame follows from a little spark.”

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 1321 AD (Courtney Langdon translation)

Communities and futures are built upon lifetimes of small actions.

We gathered on an earthly knoll within the Crested Butte cemetery, in the embrace of the surrounding mountains. We gave thanks and celebrated the life of Steve Polan. A New Yorker, Steve and his wife, Betsy Roistacher, found their way to Crested Butte, where they fully immersed themselves. I came to know them as they became involved in, and supported, RMBL. In his role leading the Crested Butte Public Policy Forum, which promotes civic engagement by bringing distinguished speakers to Crested Butte, Steve actively looked for ways for RMBL and the Policy Forum to collaborate. A friendship built on small exchanges, I had the privilege of joining friends and family in placing dirt on his grave, interring him in his Garden of Eden.

With bluebird skies and time to connect with friends, I fell into conversation with another active community member of Crested Butte and supporter of RMBL who explained “mitzvah”. Within the Jewish religion, the primary meaning of mitzvah is “commandment”. But more commonly it is used to describe good deeds, especially those that emphasize kindness and empathy, and which build community. It was a fitting conversation.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I find much for which to be grateful, including time to enjoy family and friends as well as the joy I take in living in the West Elk Mountains. I give thanks to RMBL’s many supporters, from docents that invest their time volunteering to our donors that make great science and education possible. The kindness that leads people to support RMBL, or any nonprofit, is humbling and inspiring.

But beyond thanks, I find hope in these mitzvahs. Collectively donations to RMBL add up, making possible the services we provide scientists and ensuring students can afford to spend a summer in Gothic. But these small actions can also spark something greater. This week we profile two RMBL supporters, Pete and Char Carbone Rowland. If there is anybody that symbolizes the spark, it is Char! A talk by RMBL scientist, Dr. David Inouye, lit her up. Since then, she has made it her mission to spark others to join in RMBL’s community of supporters. You can find out more about Char and Pete, and their decision to support RMBL, in the adjoining article.

A future of environmental challenges, from climate change to biodiversity to human health, can be overwhelming. A sense of a future that is beyond our individual action. But collectively, through our small actions, and more importantly in how we spark others, we can build a community that has a power that is beyond any of us individually. This spark can be created in other unique and unexpected ways. One example is work not by scientists but by artists working at the conjunction of climate change and Dante’s Divine Comedy – From A Little Spark May Burst A Flame: Ackroyd & Harvey’s ‘Script’ (gardnermuseum.org).

Whether you participate in the RMBL community, or have another community that lights you up, I encourage you to give thanks and generate hope through mitzvah. You can make a year-end donation to RMBL at Donate to RMBL – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Collectively we can transform field science, sparking something much greater!

Director’s Letter October 2023

“History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme”

James Burn, In the Christian Remembrancer, October of 1845

“The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and .. there is no rational explanation for it”

Eugene Wigner, In The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, 1960

A trout jumping in a riffle, releasing a whiff of trout and algal aroma and a wolf lurking in the forest, generating a sense of foreboding.

Ancient bacteria processing methane in a backyard in Berkeley and the meanders of the East River, below Gothic, CO.

A bee, navigating fields of flowers, domesticated and wild, moving in a straight line each time a flower comes up empty of nectar, but turning when discovering golden nectar.

While the details of the rich tapestry of life are unique in time and place, from fear cascading through ecosystems and causing fundamental changes in biomass productivity and community composition, to conserved metabolic processes carried in genes around the world, to bees optimizing how they collect and spend energy, biology harbors resonant themes, with complexity yielding to order.

Mark Twain is often posthumously quoted, but we have James Burn, an influential 19th century publisher of children’s tales, to thank for first describing the rhyming nature of human history. Just as great artists create works, rooted in the details of a human life, that speak to people everywhere, so too do great scientists pull back the curtains of complexity to reveal recurring patterns and theories. We may not fully understand the powers of nature that generate these recurring patterns, but whether expressed as a theory, or a mathematical equation, we can still be grateful. They give us the power to simplify an otherwise overwhelmingly complex world.

The research RMBL scientists conduct on the valleys and mountains around Gothic changes how we see the world. It gives us a look into recurring patterns and provide conceptual tools to think about very different ecosystems and processes. The sheer volume of scientists trained through RMBL has created scientists across the globe who provide environmental leadership in academia, governments, and non-profits.

As an example of how RMBL’s impact reaches well beyond Gothic, this week we profile Dr. Rebecca Irwin, touching on her work at RMBL as well as her leadership of the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center Consortium through North Carolina State University. The center delivers science and synthesis for climate adaptation, helping communities effectively navigate a changing world.

As fall turns to winter, share our joy in the beauty and richness of whatever ecosystem you find yourself in, from the cornfields of Kansas to the tundra of the North Slope of Alaska, to the aspen groves of the Colorado Rockies. But also join us in our appreciation of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics and the power of place to inform how we understand and manage the world!

To reach more about resonant themes across math, art, and music, check out the Pulitzer prize-winning book, Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter.

Director’s Letter September 2023

Philosopher and historian Will Durant reminds us that we might benefit by occasionally considering the ground upon which our feet stand, metaphorically as well as literally. Geology is often destiny, and explains Crested Butte’s coal mines, ski resort, and even RMBL.

The presence of Crested Butte’s coal mines is explained in part by the Western Interior Seaway that split North America into two landmasses. Decomposition lacking oxygen is inefficient, leaving energy behind. Coal is just concentrated energy and was generated through plant material that accumulated in swamps and wetlands adjacent to the Western Interior Seaway, places where dead plant material would accumulate but oxygen was limited.  Geology explains CB coal mines!

The Crested Butte Mountain Resort is located on a laccolith, formed when magma bubbled up from the Earth’s crust, giving us a mountain upon which to ski. The local laccoliths, including Snodgrass and Gothic mountains, are located on mancos shale and are prone to landslides. While landslides on Snodgrass were intensively studied to assess whether a ski resort expansion was appropriate, the removal of Snodgrass from the ski resort boundary through the recently released Forest Plan Revision by the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre, and Gunnison Forests is more about economics and politics than geology.

Local mancos shale, on the other hand, is partly responsible for RMBL’s persistence. Mancos shale dates to 80-95 million years ago, or the late Cretaceous when dead plants accumulated on the shallow bottom of the Western Interior Sea. With plant material accumulating in stagnant waters and a low oxygen environment, the mudflats became shale, with less energy than coal.

The relationship between mancos shale and Crested Butte’s wildflower diversity is less than clear, at least to me. I’ve seen mancos shale described as being a barren soil upon which plants struggle to grow as well as a sponge that provides water maintaining plant productivity and hence diversity. My best guess is that our diverse wildflowers likely are a result of diverse habitats associated with the shale. Work from the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (Lawrence Berkeley Lab) finds variability in types of mancos shale that is correlated with different vegetation types. Mancos shale moves and breaks, and when combined with lots of water and complex terrain, produces a complex and variable landscape, supporting diverse wildflowers.

Pre-World War Two scientific work at RMBL took advantage of this diversity; botany and mammalogy classes leveraged it to introduce plants and animals. This landscape complexity became a barrier in the 1970s when a push towards experimentation put a premium on large homogeneous landscapes. But now, the increasing power of sensors combined with big data, give us the inferential power to untangle this complexity, revealing fundamental processes lacking in simpler landscapes. I will take the beauty and statistical power of the Elk Mountains over the monotony of cornfields!

Big picture, how we manage the release of stored carbon from anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition, will determine the world’s future. RMBL, leveraging emerging sensing techniques and unique long-term research that integrates geology, hydrology, biology, and atmospherics, will play a major role in revealing, and hopefully managing, our geological destiny!

Learn more about geology and biology by reading the accompanying essay by Dr. Amy Ellwein. Check out her amazing book, Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope!

Director’s Letter August 2023

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?

From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

As children we are the original scientists.

Born into a world of disordered shape and color we find pattern, grasping onto order to navigate the world. We scaffold reality, integrating novel observations into the known. Research published in Science (2015 Stahl and Feigenson) demonstrated how children explore the world as scientists. They spend more time exploring the unexpected, working as scientists to integrate the novel into the known.

With the passing of time marked by the pace at which the world passes us by, we speed up as we age and see less of the world, relying rather upon internal landscapes to navigate.

Great scientists find new ways of seeing. Albert Einstein wondered what the world would look like if he jumped on a beam of light. That thought experiment helped him develop the special theory of relativity.

Over 30 years ago two Susans, Susan Alan Lohr, RMBL’s first permanent full-time director, and Susan Brown Hoffman, RMBL’s first youth science program director, had the vision to create our youth science program. Adding younger ages to our traditional college programs complements our community. Striving to see the world through their eyes provides the opportunity to see the world anew, creating possibility of discovery! Volunteering with the program also provides budding scientists opportunities to explore science teaching as a career opportunity.

RMBL’s K-12 program is unusual in how children participate in an authentic research community. Brianna Guijosa, profiled in the accompanying article, has been one of our top science volunteers with the program. Coming to us from East Los Angeles College and transferring to Humboldt University, she has spent the last two summers in RMBL’s undergraduate research program studying how carrion beetles affect soil nutrients. Enthusiastic, passionate, and good at explaining the why and what of her research, instructors seek Brianna out.

This summer we received a huge financial assist from the Gunnison Metropolitan Recreation District, targeting north valley youth. A combination of program fees, growing year-round programs, and philanthropic support from a handful of individuals recognizing the special nature of the program, has made it possible to maintain a year-round youth programs director, reflecting the expertise needed to effectively bring science to youth in an outdoor setting. But there has always been a financial gap that we’ve struggled to fill, especially to support local schools. But with Met Rec’s support, the program will not just survive, but thrive, enabling us to bring authentic research to local children.

Thanks to everybody who has helped us bring financial order to a program that started as a vision of what could be! RMBL will only benefit from actively integrating the youngest of scientists into our community, extending our scientific lives as they reveal new ways of seeing!

 

To better understand how we construct the world around us, look for the “Invisible Gorilla” on YouTube.

Director’s Letter July 2023

“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

 

Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

 

In the age of the Anthropocene, when geologists thousands of years in the future will be able to read the moment in time when humans first left detectable fingerprints in the earth’s stratigraphy, I find myself pondering legacies, good and bad.

Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias was an implicit criticism of King George III, calling out the long and unpopular reign of the mad farmer King. At the peak of his power King George III ruled over 20% of the world. He was considered by many, including his English subjects, a tyrant, a characterization reinforced by his role overseeing the losing side of the American War of Independence.

One of the King George’s many legacies was Kew Gardens, an institution inextricably linked with the emergence of science. Under his watch Kew Gardens grew into a significant botanical institution.  Plants from across the world, including curiosities like the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanium, which smells like rotten meat and is found in Sumatra, and economically important plants such as Coffea arabica, which supports approximately 2 billion cups of coffee daily worldwide, were cultivated. The scientific powerhouse behind Kew Gardens at the time was Sir Joseph Banks, who served as President of the Royal Society for 41 years, the organization that birthed modern science. King George III left legacies that changed the world, but that also left chaos and destruction in their wake as the lives of millions of native peoples were destroyed in the wake of British colonialism.

On a more modern and upbeat note, a conversation with Dr. Scott Wissinger about his legacy has always stuck with me. Scott was a faculty member an Allegheny College, an institution focused on undergraduate education. He worked at RMBL for 30 years before prematurely passing in 2019. While Scott had an active publication record and regular NSF funding, he measured his impact by the students he trained and their successes.

This month we profile Dr. Susan Washko, one of the many students Scott trained (see adjoining article). An Allegheny alumna, Susan originally came to RMBL to work with Scott. She now helps with RMBL’s undergraduate research program, managing professional development activities, helping students stay on track, and providing personal and professional support as the undergraduates make the transition from classroom learners to active field scientists.

The power of RMBL’s people, and our programs which train the next generation of leaders in field science, should not be underestimated. Society’s capacity to navigate rapid societal change, not just the technical expertise, but having the social capital, the trust and a shared sense of purpose in the necessity of wisely managing the earth’s resources, will be determined by the collective capacity of the leaders we train. Investing in people gives us hope that the legacy of our generation will be more than just a geological stratum composed of plastics and radioactive material, but rather a legacy that honors the richness and beauty of earth’s biodiversity.