In Class Research

February 1, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Student Interns at Poplar Island, Gets Up-close with Diamondback Terrapins

Part of Tokash's duties included gathering data and tagging hatchlings. She's shown with traps, holding a turtle.

Part of Alayna Tokash’s duties included gathering data and tagging hatchlings

by Kristin M. Distel

“I can apply these skills to other areas in my field, whether I go on to earn a Ph.D. or to work in other research positions,” says Alayna Tokash, now a master’s student in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Tokash, also an Ohio University undergraduate alumna of wildlife and conservation biology (2016), spent a summer as an undergraduate completing a competitive internship on Poplar Island in Chesapeake Bay. While there, she studied diamondback terrapins and gained valuable fieldwork experience.

“This internship in particular is important for diamondback terrapins and great for ecology students,” she remarks. For Tokash, the internship served as a gateway to graduate work, and she returned to Poplar Island the summer following her internship as a master’s student.


Graduate student and alumna Alayna Tokash worked closely with diamondback terrapins at Poplar Island.

Graduate student and alumna Alayna Tokash worked closely with diamondback terrapins at Poplar Island.

Hands-on Learning about ‘the Roots of Science’

“The work I’ve done at Poplar Island has really helped me understand the roots of science. Too frequently we hear about ‘scientists’ in general and have vague ideas about the work they do,” Tokash says, “but at Poplar Island, we’re getting back to sheer observation and hands-on experience in the field. This internship is really valuable in that it provides students with a framework for not only understanding the basics of data collection in the field but also understanding the effort that goes into a management plan for a declining species.”

Tokash explains that Poplar Island is an important site for fieldwork and ecological research in part because the island has eroded away almost completely. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stepped in to help rebuild the island,” she notes. “They are taking dredged material from the Port of Baltimore’s approach channels and using it to rebuild Poplar. It’s a giant restoration project that began in 1998, and it has helped build nesting habitat for these turtles.”

Conserving a Rapidly Declining Species

In describing her daily duties as a research assistant, Tokash explains that each day began with a boat ride to Poplar Island. Part of her responsibilities included crewing the boat and learning to drive. Upon arriving at Poplar each day, she and the rest of the team surveyed the island for diamondback terrapin nests. They also trapped turtles in reconstructed wetlands in order to tag them, which allowed the team to collect demography data, such as the age and sex of the turtles and whether the female turtles were pregnant. Tokash marked the nest locations and tagged hatchlings, as well.

The project is important, Tokash notes, because of dwindling populations of diamondback terrapins along the east coast and down to the gulf coast of Texas.

“These turtles are declining rapidly throughout their range and are about to be re-categorized on the IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species. The Poplar Island habitat restoration project is providing a novel system for studying them because it is one of the only populations of terrapins that has high recruitment of young individuals (females reproducing with high rates of success). Students who are accepted into this internship get to contribute to data collection that will aid in understanding how to better conserve this species. Working in conservation is a goal for many students interested in ecology,” says Tokash.

Tokash’s notes that her work with diamondback terrapins was personally and professionally rewarding

‘Something You Can’t Learn in the Classroom’

Tokash learned about the Poplar Island internship early on during her time at OHIO. She was interested in the opportunity from the beginning, she notes, because she loved the idea of working on a habitat restoration project with a charismatic turtle species. The work itself was a perfect fit for her interests; moreover, it is a paid internship in which room and board were provided.

Completing an internship was a requirement for Tokash’s degree in wildlife and conservation biology at OHIO, but it is also an impressive line on her résumé. Tokash landed the Poplar Island internship with the help of OHIO’s Program to Aid Career Exploration (PACE) and her adviser and Professor of Biology, Dr. Willem Roosenburg. “The internship helped me build a stronger professional relationship with my advisor, and it opened the door to my continuing on to graduate school with Dr. Roosenburg. I took an upper-level animal ecology course with him when I was a sophomore, and he approached me about going out to Maryland as a research assistant.”

Tokash recommends that other students who are interested in conservation ecology try their hand at fieldwork.

“The work we do on Poplar Island is extremely well-rounded. The experience you get out there is hard-core fieldwork. If you think you want to go into ecology in general and you don’t know whether you like fieldwork, this experience will be really telling—and challenging. I was able to test myself and see whether this career path is right for me. Fieldwork is something you can’t learn in the classroom.”

Bringing Research Skills Back to OHIO

Tokash has found that the skills and lessons she learned during her internship have prepared her for intensive graduate work at OHIO. “The skills you learn in the field and the confidence you gain are invaluable, and working with animals and a field crew of dedicated students was a great learning experience.”

Tokash’s time at Poplar Island was “extremely valuable”

Tokash’s work at Poplar Island has also opened her eyes to the wide range of post-graduate opportunities that will be available to someone with an advanced level of field experience and knowledge of conservation. She will be qualified to work for the federal and state government or any range of nonprofit organizations, she notes.

“I want to do meaningful science, and the internship allowed me to find an avenue for the kind of science I want to do. It helped me integrate my skill sets. Participating in a project that is centered around a large-scale habitat restoration will be extremely valuable for my career, no matter which avenue I pursue to fulfill my goals as a scientist.”


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