How a walk in the park provided the “spark” I didn’t know I needed

by Ian McCullough

Academic researchers are trained to package their science as neatly manicured manuscripts. We provide an overview of a topic and then describe what we did, what we found and what it all means. Rarely, however, do we hear about how an idea or project came to be in the first place. Today, I would like to pull back the curtain and share an anecdote about an important day in my research career.

It was late June 2016. At the time, I was a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. On the backend of a road trip to Oregon for a wedding, I stopped in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, an off-the-beaten-path park I would imagine few Americans have even heard of. 

Early in the morning of my only full day in the park, I left my beautiful campsite along Manzanita Lake and headed east along the park’s only major road toward the Cluster Lakes Loop. Having previously lived in Maine, I sorely missed these formerly glaciated, lake-rich landscapes that in California could only be found at the highest elevations. 

One thing I did not miss about Maine was the mosquitoes. Even though it was late June, at an elevation of about 7000 ft (2134 m), the snowpack had not completely melted beneath the shady coniferous canopy, which meant there were plenty of puddles ripe for mosquitoes to breed. Having grown used to the dry climate of Southern California, I clearly was not prepared for this, so my solution was to bundle up and walk quickly.

After basically putting my head down and booking it for a few miles, suddenly the mosquitoes disappeared. I found myself in complete sunlight and the air felt significantly warmer and drier. It turned out I was in the middle of a burned area from the 2012 Reading Fire. As I walked through the skeleton of the pine-fir forest, I couldn’t help but notice how the fire had transformed what would have been a cool, dark, wet, mosquito-infested patch of forest into a warm, bright, dry, mosquito-free patch of forest. Clearly, the fire had had an effect on the landscape, and probably in many more ways than just these.

What a difference a fire can make across the landscape. These forest patches were just a few hundred meters apart, yet their environments were completely different. The top patch was shady, cool, moist and mosquito-infested, whereas the bottom patch was bright, warm, dry and mosquito-free. If fire effects on the terrestrial landscape are this noticeable, what about fire effects on the freshwater landscape?

Before long, however, I came across some lakes with completely burned shorelines. Clearly the fire had affected the landscape, so what about the lakes? Their watersheds probably were completely scorched and all sorts of nutrients and materials could have ended up in the water. Soon after, I encountered more lakes with completely intact shorelines, at least some indication that their watersheds might have avoided the fire. As I finished my hike, I wondered if anyone had ever studied fire effects on lakes. I filed this thought away, but didn’t necessarily expect to revisit it.

In 2016, I encountered several nearby lakes within the same landscape. Some had heavily burned shoreline and watersheds, whereas others largely escaped the fire. What were the ecological implications for the lakes, I wondered?

Fast forward about a year later and I’m in a brainstorm session with my new research group at Michigan State University, where I was starting as a postdoctoral researcher. I casually mentioned that I was interested in fire impacts on lakes. One of the professors’ eyes lit up and one of my first projects ended up being a review paper on the fairly limited amount of existing lake-fire research. The amusing title “Do lakes feel the burn?” was inspired by some roadside graffiti I encountered on my aforementioned 2016 trip (it was an election year). Years later, this foundational paper still produces new research collaborations and grant proposals as fires continue to torch many parts of the US.

Fresh off a hike through some burned lake watersheds, some election-year (2016) roadside graffiti inspired the lighthearted title of the 2019 review article “Do lakes feel the burn?”

Even if you don’t study lakes or wildfires, part of my hope in sharing this anecdote is to illustrate just how seemingly ideas might come to you randomly in life yet how career/life-impacting these can be. Personally, I rarely come up with very interesting ideas while sifting through spreadsheets and data graphs. So if you’re searching for inspiration, whether for science or otherwise, maybe a “walk in the park” is all you need. 

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