The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that "The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions." This truism became apparent to me after years of doing scientific research. Each year my projects have become more sophisticated and my love for science developed into an admiration for both the natural world and technology. I even found myself intrigued by one of the greatest naturalists, Charles Darwin, whose evolutionary theory struck a chord with me. Since studying his work, I have developed an interest in laboratory research and also learned the importance of field research. Last summer, an Earthwatch Institute expedition focusing on the flight of the hummingbird gave me an opportunity to further this interest and do research with scientists studying these amazing birds.
The Earthwatch Institute's mission is to engage people worldwide in "scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment." As a result of the expedition, I have an entirely new respect for nature. I live in Los Angeles, a metropolis filled with pollution. I had never really been in nature uninterrupted by cars, noises, streets or large buildings. On my few hikes, I would reach the summit only to see cars and streets and large buildings through the haze. On our expedition in Arizona, we had time to hike for pleasure. One day I and another volunteer followed a trail and when we reached the top, looked down on trees and mountains as far as the eye could see. I just sat there and breathed in the fresh air and looked at the massive landscape, thinking, Wow, I have missed so much. At night, I was able to look up and see the stars clearly, not as distant glints of light through the smog of Los Angeles.
Working with the scientists and other volunteers, I learned to identify birds (both hummers and others), trees, moths and, perhaps most important, recognize the beauty that is nature. I now see the importance of conservation and understand the impact of pollution. I now understand why it is necessary to conserve our earth, both because we are using up natural resources and because of nature's beauty.
My experience in Arizona with the hummingbird was truly something I will never forget. While doing behavioral observations in the field, I constantly thought about the advantages and disadvantages of field research and how different it was from what I expected. I had always been more inclined to do research in the lab, thinking that there were just too many variables that could not be controlled in the field. After doing behavioral observations and watching the amazing things hummingbirds are capable of, I began to think of how difficult it would be to set up a controlled environment for these birds that chase each other at amazing speeds with maneuvering capabilities that would make anyone's jaw drop. In fact, studying hummingbirds in an artificial, controlled environment would produce its own variables. Researchers attempting to create a habitat would need to eliminate flora or animal species and their absence could result in different behavior. Weather conditions could not as easily be replicated in an enclosed environment, yet the habitat, changing seasons and humidity may all be related to the species' behavior.
The advantage of field research is seeing the organism in its natural habitat and observing its actions. While I am still fascinated by lab work, I see the importance of field research for studying and understanding those natural interactions.
During the expedition, I spent time with a great team of volunteers that included teachers who, like me, had a thirst for knowledge. It gave me the opportunity to practice my problem-solving skills. Secretly, I've always wanted to be the next MacGyver. I have found that science, especially field research, allows you to practice problem-solving skills. While studying the flight mechanics of the hummingbird, I had a great time thinking on my feet and figuring things out.
In the end, I found I had more questions than answers, both about hummingbirds and my own career, but according to Levi-Strauss, raising questions is as important in scientific inquiry as finding solutions. When I consider field research, I am reminded of Darwin who wrote about his experiences on the voyage of the Beagle as the most important event in his life. He felt that it provided the first real training, and said, "I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in natural science." Perhaps some day, through persistent curiosity and questioning, I will make a contribution to science. My research has motivated me to continue working toward becoming a scientist.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.