by Natrieifia Miller

How MYLES and CLC Helped Me Rediscover My Passion for Conservation

Though our summers began with the same introductory backpacking trip, I wasn’t prepared to spend too much time with the Conservation Leadership Corps (CLC) this summer. As the ATC’s Broader Relevancy and Engaged Partners Intern, I assumed much of my work would be done in the SORO office in Asheville. Fortunately for me, my schedule allowed me to break free from the office and join the CLC on many of their projects, and the week we spent at Purchase Knob participating in the MYLES of Science program stands out as one of my favorites by far.

The long, winding road up to the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center atop Purchase Knob had my stomach twisted in knots. I kept closing my eyes on and off as we gained in elevation, trying to quell my building nausea, but as we broke through the tree line and I caught site of the Learning Center, I all but forgot my discomfort. The Purchase Knob bald, with its historical cabin, rolling meadows of wildflowers, and the Learning Center nestled near the top, made for a picturesque view I find difficult to truly capture in words. I couldn’t believe we were getting to stay here for nearly a week!

The next morning, we began by joining a lesson on the scientific method, bioindicators and ozone pollution. As an undergraduate Biology student about to enter my last year, it was difficult not to answer the questions being posed, but definitely worth it to watch the high school students participating in the MYLES program display their knowledge of these concepts. By the afternoon, it was finally time to head into the field for salamander data collection. I have studied salamanders extensively as part of my undergraduate research, so this was the moment I had been eagerly awaiting for weeks! We broke into groups and traveled along transects where “tree cookies” had been placed to serve as our control variable.

Tree cookies are cross sections of trees, laid on the ground to serve as a safe habitat for salamanders and other critters. They make a great control because they are a constant point to check for salamanders from year to year as data is collected. Their similar shapes and sizes allow scientists to focus on other variables in habitat selection, such as ground moisture and air temperature.

CLC member Lucy Crespo and I searching for salamanders under a tree cookie.

In subsequent days, the members of CLC and I got to participate in more salamander collections, snail surveys and tree phenology observation. Like me, several of the CLC members are interested in pursuing careers in wildlife biology, and the experience served as an excellent window into the work we might be doing some day. Even better, all the data collected by MYLES participants actually gets used in real scientific studies, so it was especially impactful knowing that our work may be used to aid salamander conservation efforts.

By the close of the program, I dragged my feet packing. On top of the new knowledge, new friends, and new memories I had gained during the week, I also gained a renewed love for field research. As my final college semester draws closer, I have become anxious trying to figure out what my plans are after receiving my degree. I know the road will likely be long and winding, (hopefully without many bouts of nausea!), but after a week working with MYLES of Science, my conviction that I will love and thrive in a career in conservation was reaffirmed. In encouraging a new generation of environmental stewards like myself, it’s impossible to overstate the value of time spent among our mountains and rivers. After all, it’s hard to deny the charisma of a wiggly red salamander!