Field Courses in the Appalachians

Amongst misty trees on top of an ancient mountain, sits two rows of cabins, a small cafeteria on one end, and a poised stone building at the other. This hidden gem just down the winding road from the very lodge where Dirty Dancing was filmed, is University of Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Research Station.

It is here that I spent a whole summer.

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I took full-immersion field courses in fish ecology, plant diversity, and wildlife research field methods. It was an intense few months stuffed with sweaty full body waiters, confused moments keying out impossibly small flowers, and far too many camera trap photos of blurry deer.

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To give you a taste of life at Mountain Lake, here are three lessons I will not forget:

1) How to balance in a river current while electro-shocking fish just enough to momentarily shock them without totally killing them. And how to follow behind the electro-shocker, keeping all non-waitered body parts clearly out of water, as you feebly attempt to catch shocked fish whisking past you.

2) How to stomach instinctual fears of snakes so that you can lift up snake boards and rapidly plummet your hand down towards their large slithering bodies, grabbing them right behind the head. All while praying that you don’t miss, or end up grabbing a rattle snake or water snake. I don’t think I will ever master this very gutsy maneuver…

3) How to notice (and care about) the difference between thorns, spines, and prickles. Not to mention sedges, hedges, and grasses.


Looking back at these lessons among the many, I full heartedly believe that field courses are a great way for college students to push beyond the books and actually try out real science for themselves. Even though I considered myself ‘field experienced’ from my then singular trip to a wildlife sanctuary, I was in reality totally inexperienced. And a summer of strenuous classes set almost entirely in the wild had a clear way of showing me that fact. These courses taught me that I still had a lot to learn when it came to both science and nature in general. And they did so in a way that not only challenged me, but drove me to want to be a better scientist.