AGCI Insight

Intern Reflection: Shifting focus–my summer of unexpected setbacks and learning opportunities

August 21, 2023

Hannah Harbert is the CW3E & AGCI Intern for the 2023 summer season.

Three women hike up a trail holding field equipment.
The author (Center) hiking up to Sky Mountain with Elise and Tanya, grateful to be back in the field with ten good toes. Image Credit: Emilio Mateo.
A reddish-pink line in white snow reveals the presence of the algea known as watermelon snow.
Watermelon snow (snow algae)  found on Independence Pass. Image Credit: Hannah Harbert, Summer 2023.

I’ve always preferred being outdoors instead of indoors, even on the coldest of days. My love for the outdoors is what drives my growing passion for science. So when I resigned from a career in landscaping to embark on new adventures in natural science, I was most excited about the time I would spend outside conducting field work while observing and simply being present in the landscapes I’ve come to love. Even the drive over Independence Pass to and from home on the weekends provided opportunities to watch the alpine snow melt, spot mountain goats grazing on the hillside, and observe marmots, bears, foxes, and deer. I even found watermelon snow for the first time! I have a not-so-secret fascination with snow algae. 

I had two short field days under my belt and was only two weeks into my internship when I injured my foot, breaking two toes while pulling a boat out of the Arkansas River at the end of an adrenaline-and laughter-filled day with friends. My injury meant I could not do any field work for four to six weeks. That was practically the remainder of my internship! I struggled to develop a research question having only seen two of the ten Roaring Fork Observation Network sites. I felt that I really needed to be in these places to understand what type of research was needed and what questions the sites stirred up. I also struggled to draft a field protocol for the same reason, never having been to and seen with my own eyes many of the landscapes I was attempting to study. After a couple of weeks of frustration and disappointment, I realized I needed to pivot and adjust my perspective. 

I was reminded by a close friend that even though I’m not able to be in the field, I am still learning. She told me to focus on the things I was learning, like writing a very clear and detailed protocol, since I would not be able to walk the team through it in the field or answer any questions on site. I began to focus on things like the opportunity to improve my GIS skills, my skills in reviewing literature, and my understanding of the importance of soil moisture.

I started listening to podcasts about the Colorado River while doing tasks that I once found tedious and monotonous, like data entry and map building. The last episode of one of the Colorado River podcasts was my favorite. It told the story of the Cocopah people in the river delta and how they formed a coalition that brought the U.S. and Mexico together to dedicate Colorado River water to the environment for the first time by releasing newly allocated water through the Morelos Dam. The dedicated water is restoring the wetlands and streams of the delta, bringing life back to the ecosystem and the communities that once relied on it. It is easy to drift into a state of despair when thinking about water and the environment, but this story gave me hope and encouraged me to think about what my own community is capable of achieving for the sake of the environment. I started thinking about how my new knowledge could help water managers and communities in the Arkansas River Valley (including mine) better prepare for not only the impacts of climate change, but also the impacts of population growth throughout the valley. 

In foreground a woman writes on a clipboard. In background a woman holds a soil moisture sensor in her hands in a forest. Image Credit: Emilio Mateo
Abbey Ertzbischoff (CW3E and Yampa Valley Sustainability Council Intern) and the author (finally!) enjoying a field day at Northstar during Abbey’s visit to the Roaring Fork Valley. Image Credit: Elise Osenga.

My summer was not filled with days in the field, mountain bike rides after work, or climbing on the weekends as I expected, but instead lots of learning through reading, listening, writing, and talking with my peers and mentors. I didn’t just deepen my understanding of science; I learned how to pivot, how to change my perspective, how to be flexible and find gratitude in things I never have before. I learned to find the good in a time of frustration and disappointment, and hope in times of despair.