Between Muck and a Hard Place: Balancing the Roles of ECR and PI

by Katherine Glover

Conceiving New Research

As a postdoc, I find that a single day’s to-do list often visits past, present and future work. There is the project you are hired for and new skills to learn, repackaging dissertation work for publication, and conceiving new research for grant proposals and job talks. This time last year, I was immersed in my first grant proposal to the National Geographic Society Early Career Program. This program supports new investigations, with a high proportion of the budget devoted to fieldwork expenses. Changes to the program in the past few years have included expanded funding, and there is now no age restriction. Complementary programs, particularly in Geography Education, can support your outreach and external capacity ideas. Once funded, there are extensive resources available within the NGS community, including an online community, webinars, events for Explorers to showcase their work and network, affording valuable networking and research opportunities. It was November when I received the good news that I’d been funded, and saw these words on the attached contract for the first time: “Principal Investigator”.

Figure 1. Kankakee Paleo Project kickoff at the Collier Lodge historic site in Kouts, Indiana. Photo courtesy of John Hodson, Kankakee Valley Historical Society

So began the Kankakee Paleo Project (Fig. 1), an effort to better understand Holocene environmental change in northwestern Indiana. The Grand Kankakee Marsh (Fig. 2) once sprawled over 2500 km2, and was one of the largest, most biodiverse wetlands in North America. Ancestors of Native Americans in the region, the Potawatomi, began living in this resource-rich region shortly after ice sheet retreat. Predictably, it was exploited during 19th century Euro-American settlement. Beaver, deer, muskrat, and waterfowl were hunted to ship out via rail, and the hardwood forest used for timber in Chicago. Finally, the meandering 400 km river was dredged and rerouted to only 150 km. When I saw the Kankakee at last, it indeed looked like a big irrigation ditch.

Upper Midwestern paleo records have shown regional response to Late Holocene events, such as deep drought in the lead-up to the Little Ice Age [1]. However, the geographic extent of this response, and its impact on vegetation, is less understood. My plan was to take 8-12 cores throughout the Kankakee watershed, a “site network” approach I have used before to understand climate change and landscape response across space and time.
Fig. 2: Location of the Grand Kankakee Marsh

Fieldwork planning began in January. Immediately, I confronted how much admin is inherent to the role of Principal Investigator (P.I.). There were university procedures to clarify at every stage, hours spent on the phone, and budget reallocation. By spring, other details came together almost seamlessly. An evening recruitment event for summer fieldwork at the University of Maine led to one student with glowing references. An undergrad classmate of mine reconnected to talk paleo research ideas for her student. A few videoconferences later, both were on board. I borrowed equipment and tools from my postdoc lab, and bought consumables.

Fieldwork Realities

My intention was to work with an adaptable coring kit that would support drive-up, walk-in sites on farms and in marshes. We could cover a lot of ground this way, and achieve the goal of 8-12 paleo records throughout the watershed that captured the last 5,000 years. We brought a Livingstone, which uses suction to remove sediment one meter at a time from marshes and lakes, and a Russian corer. Once inserted into the ground, the Russian system carves out a sample of the surrounding sediment, and sticks it to a flat metal flap for retrieval. Both work best in fine-grained inorganic to somewhat organic sediment.

The team and landowners were enthusiastic at our first site, ready to see a core come out of the ground. I imagine any P.I. wants that first demonstration to recover something spectacular while eager students look on. This didn’t happen. Our first core hit resistance in under half a meter. Black topsoil quickly coarsened downsection to an orange-brown, sugary sand. I shifted the team to shallow marshlands the next day, hoping our equipment would recover longer sequences with organic deposits. Instead, the coring equipment got completely stuck. So began frustrated troubleshooting that carried over to the following day, including disassembling some parts, fighting suction, calls for help, and finally digging it out by hand while nearly submerged (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. When your fieldwork fantasy confronts reality

Now we knew that sand was too resistant, and the suction of the marsh muck too great. We tried to find wetland sites that would have the right “Goldilocks” combination of cohesive sediment. Even at more organic sites, we couldn’t fight the sandy resistance. Aeolian islands developed in northwestern Indiana from 18,000 to 13,000 years ago BP after ice sheet retreat, and the sand was truly everywhere: oxbow lakes, vernal pools in the forest, even the bed of former Beaver Lake, once the largest natural lake in Indiana. It was only Day 3 when I questioned everything about project design: had I chosen a field area that simply did not have continuous paleo records?

I decided we’d explore adjacent watersheds. At last, we had a day of proper coring at a small Nature Conservancy site. For the first time, a little bit of clay gave some cohesion, and we got sequences over 1 meter (barely). I drove solo back to Maine over three contemplative days. Postdoc time is valuable, and I had just spent weeks – months, even – gathering and troubleshooting equipment, admin, budgeting, planning, driving. I had hoped for enough cores to support student projects in the coming year. This wasn’t the return on investment I’d expected.

Lessons Learned

I’m no stranger to fieldwork not going as planned, and projects that change radically from their first conception. Every semester I teach, I coach students through adjusting their fieldwork plans and goals as an integral part of the scientific process. However, being a P.I. introduced new dynamics:

1) Reframing circumstances as a problem to be solved, while facilitating student success.

While these were skills I’ve certainly cultivated as an educator, graduate student, and postdoc, major project adjustments were often a protracted process I grappled with in private. Now, as a P.I. responsible for students and their own rapid thesis and graduation timelines, there simply wasn’t the luxury of time to deliberately weigh all choices, or nurse hurts from harsh feedback or a permit denied. In Indiana, this meant continuing to visit sites I knew would be poor for sediment coring, but ideal for the soil sampling necessary for a student’s capstone project.

2) Reframing the project to better align with collaborators’ interests.

I saw my coring and paleo record expertise as something unique I could bring to a new region. Yet to those local to the area, this sampling can be perceived as extractive. When results come years later and scientists move institutions, we risk local follow-up simply getting lost in the shuffle. As I work with stakeholders, other components of the project resonate more: curriculum development on Kankakee history, efforts to make historic maps digitally available, and soil sample results. Limited sediment to analyze in the lab means more time for project components that students, educators, and other scientists are interested in, and have expertise in.

3) Working with program officers for the first time.

From the time my National Geographic grant was submitted, program officers were available for feedback on balancing field, outreach, mentoring, and educational components of the project. Phone calls to talk through budget and project changes helped immensely, if nothing else other than hearing support for taking the risk to conduct fieldwork in a previously-unsampled region.

4) Being solely responsible for the project team.

While I’m well-practiced providing recommendations for students, this was my first time actually making those requests myself, and calling up recommenders as I made decisions for the field team. In the end, students exceeded expectations – they were talented, adaptable, and contributed their own sampling and troubleshooting ideas. It made all the difference, and reinforced the idea that we are as good as the team that surrounds us. I believe this to be true whatever our career stage.

Katherine Glover, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine

If you have questions or comments concerning Katherine's post, please leave a comment below, or send her an email. You can also follow her research on Twitter.



[1] Bird, B.W., Wilson, J.J., Gilhooly III, W.P., Steinman, B.A., Stamps, L., 2017. Midcontinental Native American population dynamics and late Holocene hydroclimate extremes. Scientific Reports 7, 41628. DOI: 10.1038/srep41628.


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