Crunching data to trace the impact of recreational fishing on the movement of aquatic invasive species

Environmental Studies majors take part in a unique 3-quarter Capstone experience combining professional development, a built-in internship (locally or abroad) and a public presentation tying in their academic research with their practical on-the-job work. Students gain valuable hands-on experience exploring potential career paths and they build communications, research and analytic skills that serve them well beyond their time at college. 

Read more about what the student experience is within our Capstone, in this fourth post in our Student Capstone Q&A Series.

Rachel Fricke 

Capstone Study Focus: Using fishing technology to trace angler movement as a vector for invasive species
Capstone Organization: Olden Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab
UW Faculty Mentor: Dr. Julian Olden 

Why did you choose this internship?

My academic interests encompass anthropogenic interactions with freshwater resources, and I knew going into my capstone that I wanted to work somewhere within this realm. While a student in Dr. Olden’s Aquatic Invasion Ecology (FISH 423) course last Fall I met with him to discuss potential projects, and at the time he was looking for a student to tackle a collaborative study with ReelSonar, the makers of iBobber ­­– a sonar-enabled bobber with over 3 million records of fishing activity around the globe. I was excited by the dataset and its applications within aquatic ecology, and ultimately chose to pursue this internship because I knew the work would be both personally challenging and rewarding.

What environmental challenges are you addressing? Why is it important?

Recreational fishing and boating serve as pathways for the movement of aquatic invasive species into new waterbodies, and curbing the spread of noxious invaders through these vectors is an ongoing management challenge. Using data generated by iBobbers, I am characterizing fished ecosystems and integrating invasive species’ distributions with angler (fishing with a line and hook) movement patterns across the continental U.S. My study carries important implications for predicting and preventing future transmission of aquatic invasive species via recreational angling.

What are the goals of this internship and what are your expected deliverables?

Through my study I am developing my competency in quantitative analysis and science communication. To do so, I’ve synthesized research method and writing skills acquired in my Environmental Studies and Fisheries classes. My final expected deliverable is a publication-quality manuscript which I plan to submit to a peer-reviewed journal.

Rachel Fricke preparing zooplankton samples on the shores of Lake Kulla Kulla in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Photo courtesy Thiago Couto
Rachel Fricke preparing zooplankton samples on the shores of Lake Kulla Kulla in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

What does a day in the life of your internship look like?

I typically arrive at our lab office in UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences around 7 or 8 am, make a pot of coffee, and then pull up my to-do list. My work differs from day-to-day, but I usually spend time using ArcGIS and/or R to analyze data, searching and reading relevant literature, and drafting our manuscript.

I’ve also been working as a field technician in the lab over the summer, collecting samples for stable isotope analysis at high alpine lakes in the Cascades. On field days we’d leave from base camp at 6 am and backpack (sometimes bushwhack) a few miles to our lake for the day, where we sampled phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, invertebrates, and plants using ultralight pack rafts.

What skills have you learned throughout this internship?

My proficiency in ArcGIS, R, and Python has increased by leaps and bounds through this study. I had some experience with these programs prior to starting my work, but using them to analyze my own data rather than simply completing a class assignment has substantially increased my understanding of their capabilities. I’ve also learned that a large part of conducting scientific research is simply deciding how to interpret findings and their broader relevance, both in narrative and visual form.

There is rarely one “right” way to execute a study.

I’ve often wrestled with decision-making, but while carrying out my work I’ve had to justify the choices I make to my mentors, which has in turn bolstered my confidence as a researcher.

What’s the most memorable moment of this internship so far?

This past May I had the opportunity to share some my initial findings as a talk at the Society for Freshwater Science Annual Meeting in Detroit, MI. While there, I received constructive feedback from professionals in the field, met a number of ecologists whose work I have long admired, and learned about ongoing projects in a range of freshwater-related disciplines. The most memorable moment was responding to audience questions after I gave my presentation – their interest reaffirmed my investment of time and energy into my work.

What are your career aspirations once you graduate?

My immediate plans are to pursue graduate studies in aquatic ecology, though I’m also exploring research fellowship opportunities overseas. In the long-term, I hope to continue advancing freshwater conservation as a university professor and allocate my time toward both teaching and research. Working in the Olden Lab has been one of the most meaningful learning experiences in my time as an undergraduate, and I would love to start my own lab one day and pay forward the support I’ve benefitted from as a young scientist.