Life in the Field from the Mountains to the Bay

To the uninitiated, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute sounds like a weird rumor. I first learned of it as a teen, trekking the Appalachian Trail with the Boy Scouts. Stumbling down the trail, we came to a chain link fence with U.S. PROPERTY signs tacked up along its length.

“Everybody stop moving.” 

The four of us froze in place as a lump of stone and lichen twisted to life and slithered across the ground. It slipped across the boulder where we stood and up a log, looking back at us as it disappeared over and into the underbrush. A single rattle punctuated the silence.  

We all exhaled. As the only interns at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute during the COVID shutdown in the summer of 2021, we’d been all over the hills and hollers of the Shenandoah Valley in pursuit of orchids. Occasionally, in the remote areas of the Appalachian backcountry, we’d find more than what we had bargained for.  

To the uninitiated, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute sounds like a weird rumor. I first learned of it as a teen, trekking the Appalachian Trail with the Boy Scouts. Stumbling down the trail, we came to a chain link fence with U.S. PROPERTY signs tacked up along its length.  

“What is this place?” I’d asked.  

“Oh,” said one of the adults leading the trip, “It’s the Zoo.”  

I gave him a puzzled look—why was there a zoo hidden in the middle of the mountains? It seems unlikely, but there it is: a 3,000 acre satellite facility to the National Zoological Park, closed to the public, where conservationists have the space to care for, study, and bolster the population of some of the world’s most vulnerable animals. From the Scimitar-Horned Oryx to the Black-Footed Ferret, SCBI has had a behind-the-scenes role in protecting the genetic diversity of endangered animals and reintroducing them to the wild in ecosystems across the globe.  

I would not think about SCBI again until many years later, when I arrived there as a student. The Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC), a tiny campus of George Mason University nestled within SCBI, is where I first found my footing as a conservationist. It was the first place I felt that my skill as a naturalist, honed from many summers as a trail guide, was truly valuable, and the first place I was challenged to seek out career goals more specific than “well, I’d like to be outside”.  

I was hired out of my program at SMSC to work as a forest ecology intern, spending my summer at the Smithsonian hunting for orchids and identifying every plant that grows around them, in an attempt to understand the factors that make these hyper-specialized blooms call particular areas home. 

This yellow lady slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) was growing just a few feet from Skyline Drive. Our car full of interns skidded to a stop and pulled a U-turn just to get a closer look.  

From spring into the height of summer, the native orchids of the Blue Ridge burst from the soil. From the large and vibrant Lady Slippers to the subtle Rattlesnake Plantain, orchids—synonymous in the public eye with the rare and exotic—are perfectly at home in the mountains surrounding SCBI in Front Royal, Virginia. You just need to know where to look.  

And look we did. Our tiny team of four interns hiked deep into the mountains, hopping boulders, fording rivers, dodging rattlesnakes and picking ticks (so many ticks), all in the pursuit of data. To understand both orchids and the plant communities around them, I learned every tree in the Blue Ridge, both native and exotic, in English and Latin. We’d sit on boulders eating trail mix, talking about music, and using dichotomous keys to figure out if that one tree really was just a weird-looking hazelnut. I was sweaty, muddy, covered in bug bites, and having the time of my life.  

In my days since spending that summer in the mountains, I’ve learned that the Timber Rattlesnake and native orchids like the Rattlesnake Plantain share an interesting trait. They tend to garner the same follow-up question when I mention them in conversation:  

“We have those in Virginia?”  

Yes, indeed, we do, and both are a great reason to always watch your step when you’re out on a hike.  

My first summer with the Smithsonian showed me a greater depth of the forests I’d always called home; my second introduced me to a new world.  

About a year later, I was on a boat. I’d developed an expertise in plant identification and the skills required for forest ecology, yet there I was, on a trawl boat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, counting a bucket full of fish.  

The waters on the Bay were choppy that day, and I was teetering back and forth, trying to brace my shoulder against the cabin of the boat while my hands were busy attempting to measure the length of a perch as it fought my grasp, all without getting stabbed by its spines. I shouted my measurement to the crewmember taking data, releasing my fish and reaching for another, when the boat lurched and a fish in the bucket flipped its tail, sending a jet of water at my face that whipped a contact lens right out of my eye.  

I stumbled for a minute, partially blinded, winking aggressively to myself in an attempt to re-set a lens that wasn’t there. One eye closed, I reached for another fish, and kept on working. You have to move fast on the trawl boat.  

After several hundred fish counted and released, and a few sparring matches with crabs, the boat pulled into the dock at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. I’d found myself here after being offered a position as an intern liaison between the Fisheries Conservation Lab and the public-facing Education Department. My background as a science communicator got me a role turning the FishCon’s work into lesson plans for the public. To help me get an informed view of what the Smithsonian does to conserve the fisheries of the Chesapeake, the job required hands-on dirty work. That wasn’t a detractor for me—if anything, it was the reason I took the job.

Tip for holding a crab: if you grip it at the base of the paddle-like leg in the back, the claws can’t reach your fingers.  

So, I took on a new role at a new research station, learning all I could about an entirely new ecosystem. I picked up some essential knowledge along the way, including the identification of estuarine fish, the use of a sonar, and how to tie a leash to a crab without getting pinched. I still giggle about how they let this plant-loving forest boy be a marine biologist.  

These days I’m back at school, focusing my research on invasive plants, inspired by my time wandering the forests for SCBI. However, I’ve not forgotten what I learned during my waterlogged summer at SERC. Still developing my research plans, I’m exploring Pontederia crassipes, or Water Hyacinth, an aggressive aquatic plant. It seems my future as a researcher may be a combination of both of the adventures the Smithsonian has given me—and not just because I learned you can’t get ticks on a boat.