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Aug. 25, 2021

Faculty voice: Keeping the rain out

Nameer Baker is the science coordinator for the Kellogg Biological Station's Long-Term Ecological Research project. Baker’s background is in microbial and soil ecology.

Nameer Baker with his daughter.
Nameer Baker and his daughter

Anyone who has started a job during COVID can relate to just how hard that transition is. For me and my family, it meant taking a lot of big leaps simultaneously. From the moment we arrived from Oakland, California,  we’ve experienced a warm welcome —as KBSers are pretty friendly folk.

My role as a project coordinator is quite literally to know what is going on. Getting plugged into the project and figuring out the most important aspects of my job for the first time in the midst of a pandemic was not as hard as one might imagine. No, what really threw me for a loop was the missed opportunities to be inspired by the casual and informal interactions we have when we work in one another’s presence. The walls of my home office make moments of disconnect and forgetfulness more frequent than I’d like.

Luckily, my job does not require me to be behind a computer screen all that much — not during field season anyway. And this year, we had quite the season. A large part of it was making up for lost time. Last summer, we were supposed to have deployed a large rain-exclusion experiment involving 14-foot wide stainless-steel shelters with clear roofs. That reality shifted quite a bit by the time I actually arrived, of course, and so a large part of this spring was spent gearing up for the project.

We already had the steel structures built, but we had to put roofs on them – which went most quickly if someone was straddling the top of them — 10 feet in the air with a drill in hand. Not necessarily in my job description, but also not the worst way to pass the time with some friends.

Many of our undergraduates and grad students came away from this experience with a heightened appreciation for quality power tools and the difficulty of drilling through metal (not to mention the importance of good posture). After roofs came gutters – time to get versed in crimping, caulking and hanging. All useful skills for an aspiring homeowner! Little did our summer interns know that they would be developing their professional and domestic skillsets.

Once roofed and guttered, the shelters were ready to deploy into the field, so that we could explore the effects of reduced and altered rainfall on plant, insect, microbe and soil dynamics at the station. Our plan is to follow the same shelter footprints that we alter precipitation under over years in the future, to see what the cumulative effects of manipulating rainfall are over long time periods.

Performing these extended manipulations and observations are critical for adequately and accurately understanding the ecological mechanisms at play. So, all the work that undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, staff and faculty at the Long-Term Ecological Research put into those shelters this summer will continue to pay dividends going forward, even after the undergraduates and graduate students and postdocs move on to other projects and places. And I will always get to remember being up there in the wind, working with them. That is beauty of the LTER.

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