Welcome to the third of the TREE interviews! Click HERE to read more about the TREE program and its relevance to my book, RIVER’S EDGE.
Today I (Erin) am interviewing Andrew Durso!
E: Hi Andrew! Tell us the years you were at Thomson Causeway.
A: I first visited in October 2009 and spent all summer there in 2010 and 2011. I last was there in summer of 2012 for the Turtle Camp 25 year Reunion.
E: At the time, were you a student in high school, college, or graduate school? If you were conducting research, what was your focus?
A: I was a Master’s student at Eastern Illinois University during the majority of my time at TREE. My research focused on the behavior and ecology of the Western Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon nasicus) population on the nearby sand prairie.
E: How did you first decide to participate in the TREE program?
A: My colleague Lori Neuman-Lee made me aware of the dense population of Western Hog-nosed Snakes on the Thomson Sand Prairie in 2009. I decided to do my MS research there before I knew much about TREE, but because I was living and working at the Turtle Camp site during the summers of 2010 and 2011, I became involved as a de facto TREE mentor, particularly for the TREE students working on the sand prairie team. Once I had participated for one year, I was eager to go back in 2011 and took a more active role in mentoring students, although I was never officially a TREE mentor.
E: What was your favorite part of TREE?
A: It is so inspiring to see students from highly urban areas involved in scientific research in a natural setting. The Thomson Sand Prairie is one of the few intact sand prairies in Illinois, and many of the TREE students probably had never seen any truly natural ecosystem before, let alone such a unique one. I started my career in herpetology as an educator, and I have seen time and time again the power of live animals to engage and educate people. Furthermore, camping is a great leveler: from college professors to high school students, everyone takes a turn with the dishes, which fosters a real sense of community and equality. However, I think my favorite part about TREE is how it contrasts with other field research I have done—the daily interactions with interested students help keep my attitude toward sometimes discouraging or monotonous field tasks positive.
E: Can you share an anecdote or funny story about your time there?
A: High school and college students (OK, and graduate students too) love a good prank. More than once the majority of the TREE camp had their tents zip-tied shut or their tent stakes pulled out. A little humor goes a long way toward a positive environment.
E: How did TREE benefit you later in your education or career?
A: I was able to produce a great deal of data from my two years at TREE, thanks mostly to the help of the TREE students and other participants. Without the help of these individuals, I would never have been able to generate such a large data set for my MS work. These data are currently in preparation for publication, with one article in review at the journal Ethology and the other in preparation for submission to the journal Oecologia. Furthermore, I often correspond with other TREE mentors, and I have since been invited to collaborate on other research projects as a result of my work at TREE.
E: Who would you recommend the TREE program to, and why?
A: Any high school or college student interested in field ecology. There is no better way to learn than by doing. If you can’t attend TREE, find a similar program near you, or collaborate with scientists to start one of your own.
E: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about TREE?
A: The experience is irreplaceable, but funding is becoming more limited due to cuts to the federal budget for scientific research. Write your congressmen and tell them that science and science education need federal support.
Andrew, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I really enjoyed the insights you shared. Good luck with your thesis and articles!
Readers, don’t forget that 10% of April sales of RIVER’S EDGE will be donated to the TREE program. Help support future turtle research and young biologists! 🙂