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How a Hike in the Wilderness Is Making Waves

An innovative science initiative draws together multiple disciplines from campuses across the country.

Dawn on the Pacific Crest Trail. Streaks of pink begin appearing on the clouds overhead as the sky lightens; the last light from the stars gradually fades away. In the trees, birds are singing their morning songs, welcoming the new day.

On the trail below, a group of Christian college students and faculty is noting that song. They’ve been up for close to a half-hour already, having spent another night sleeping in their tents on the trail. They’ve already packed up camp and have begun their morning research routine: 10 minutes of hiking, 10 minutes of collecting data.

In those 10 minutes of collection, the students record observations on the habitat around them: they count the birds they can see and hear; if they’re near a stream or a lake, they’ll collect water samples. They deploy automated bird recorders – small digital recorders that are encased in plastic containers and left on the trail for several days to record bird sounds.

And then they begin the cycle again. Over the course of the day, they will hike around 15 miles. They take a break for lunch; in the afternoon, they hike for 20 minutes and record for 10 minutes until twilight, when they make camp, have dinner, reflect on the day, and set their watches to wake them up a half-hour before the next sunrise.

This is the Pacific Crest Trail Biodiversity Megatransect Undergraduate Research Project, a unique and ambitious project based at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California. Throughout the process of collecting and analyzing data, faculty and students from three CCCU campuses across the United States who work in six different disciplines – biology and environmental science, computer science, kinesiology, business, and English – will be involved.

A project 10 years in the making

The Megatransect Project first began more than a decade ago when Michael McGrann and his wife spent the summer of 2004 backpacking through the 1,700-mile-long stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that runs through California to celebrate the completion of their master’s degrees. While hiking the trail, McGrann – who at that point had completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental science – had a thought: “I could probably do research while hiking the PCT.”

Michael McGrann and his wife, Amy, pause on top of Mount Baden-Powell along the Pacific Crest Trail during their first hike along the length of California in 2004.
(Photo: Courtesy of Michael McGrann)

In 2006, he and his wife did exactly that – they spent five months backpacking through the California stretch of the PCT again and collected data at more than 3,500 points on the trail for McGrann to use in his doctoral research at the University of California, Davis. He has continued to build upon that research ever since; thanks to the breadth and longevity of the project, he has published two articles connected to his findings.

McGrann, who now works as an assistant professor of environmental science at William Jessup University, brought his ongoing research project with him. William Jessup now has an environmental science honors program built around the Megatransect project, which gives students the opportunity to have first-hand experience both gathering data in the field and learning how to interpret and use that data for research – albeit in much smaller pieces than that first summer of data collection.

"Perhaps there’s nobody who has a better calling than a believer with a biblical worldview to do conservation, science, and ecology. … God gave us all this diversity to study and understand and learn how he did it."
Michael McGrann

But even though students aren’t covering the full 1,700 miles like McGrann did that first summer, they still experience a lot of ecological diversity. “This summer, we’re going to have at least a dozen students – perhaps more – and four faculty engaged [in the project],” McGrann says. “We’re going through the Mojave Desert all the way up to Yosemite. … So that’s quite a change in environments, from the desert to the high alpine and everything in between. That is quite the experience for students to collect data across that range of environments.”

One attribute that McGrann is able to integrate into the project, thanks to his work at a Christian university, is faith. “I think it’s crucial that [students] grow spiritually through this trial and spend time with our Creator as we study creation,” he says. “Perhaps there’s nobody who has a better calling than a believer with a biblical worldview to do conservation, science, and ecology. … God calls us to care for creation, to improve the quality of life for humanity through stewarding and caring for the environment, and to study God’s creation. God gave us all this diversity to study and understand and learn how he did it.”

Already Making a Difference

Even as the Megatransect Project continues to take shape, McGrann’s research is already making a difference for scientists and wildlife conservationists in California.

Brett Furnas, a wildlife ecologist and senior environmental scientist with the wildlife investigations laboratory of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), completed his doctorate at UC Berkeley while working for the department at the same time that McGrann was working on his at UC Davis. Furnas hired McGrann to help with a field survey during that time and learned about McGrann’s research; they’ve been working together ever since.

“My strengths have been with the kind of mathematical analysis of that data that allows us to get the most out of it. Wildlife isn’t the easiest thing to go and count – they move around, and some of them aren’t very vocal, so you have to use math to correct for that in order to get really good information,” Furnas says. “So we complement each other that I can provide some statistical expertise … and he generates some really good hypotheses behind how birds are using different habitats, how they’re migrating, how they’re dealing with changing climates – those sorts of things.”

The other unique – and vitally important – aspect that has proven useful in their joint research is the fact that McGrann and the Megatransect research teams can get into places not normally accessed by Furnas or his colleagues. Furnas says that the CDFW usually relies on vehicles and established roads to access different areas for their work and research.

“It’s hard to get to some of these remote locations – trails are the best way to get to them,” Furnas says. “He [McGrann] is using trail systems to access these really remote and generally high-elevation wilderness locations that my program hasn’t been able to get to. … So it’s a natural fit of combining our two data sets, making them stronger together than each one is by itself.”

Aaron Sullivan, a professor at Houghton College, hikes in the Klamath Mountains on the 2016 trip.
(Photo: Courtesy of Michael McGrann)

The work has led McGrann and Furnas to publish some research on how migratory birds are adapting to the changing climate conditions in California. Not only is this helpful information for other scientists, but it is helpful for the CDFW.

“We’re the trustee agency responsible … for overseeing a lot of these species and making assessments about whether conservation is important for them, or if there needs to be recovery plans for some of them, or if they’re doing okay [on their own],” Furnas says. “Scientific research [like this] really helps us make better decisions.”

Because the Megatransect Project provides students the opportunity to use proven research methods in the field, it makes them a natural fit for research projects with CDFW, Furnas says; a few alumni from William Jessup have spent time working with the CDFW after graduation. “It gets them started in their careers, and it’s helpful for our work as well.”

An Interdepartmental Effort

One of the unique features of the Megatransect Project is the variety of departments from William Jessup involved.

Foundational to the project, of course, are the departments of environmental science (which McGrann chairs) and biology. Matt Klauer, who works as an assistant lab technician at the university, first heard about the project when he was a student studying biology at William Jessup. Though he wasn’t able to get involved with the project until after he’d graduated, he was able to go last summer and is currently helping with the planning and logistics of the upcoming trip this summer.

“I am no bird expert, but the fact is that data is data, regardless of what kind it is. So I remind [students] that we are contributing to this project because there is a great deal of help we can bring. Computing is for the good of other fields, not just for computer science.”
Joseph Liauw

“Playing a substantial role in Dr. McGrann’s transect has led me to follow my passion for organizing and working on conservation projects,” he says. “It is an exciting project and a rare opportunity I am happy to be a part of.”

Another department vital to the project’s success is the department of computer science. Joseph Liauw, associate professor of computer science, has been working both to build a database for the research team and to create web-based tools so the team can enter data on-site.

“It is difficult [for the research team] to rectify any mistakes they made in the research after the fact, so this [web-based data entry] will let them fix mistakes in the field, and it also improves of the integrity of the data we collect,” Liauw says.

The hope is eventually to create some kind of website to make the data easily available to the public. For now, Liauw is using the project as a unique, hands-on teaching tool for his students. “I am no bird expert, but the fact is that data is data, regardless of what kind it is,” he says. “So I remind [students] that we are contributing to this project because there is a great deal of help we can bring. Computing is for the good of other fields, not just for computer science.” 

Harry Snodgrass, associate professor of business at William Jessup, has also been involved in the project by utilizing his expertise in organizational management and marketing. He is working on developing the project into a nonprofit organization, as well as developing strategies for both public policy advocacy connected to the research results and marketing strategies toward raising awareness about the project and its findings.

Like Liauw, Snodgrass has found great excitement both in the project and in bringing his students into the work. “I’m really enthusiastic about the possibility of creating a laboratory, of sorts, where students can actively apply the theoretical concepts we talk about in the business classroom,” he says. “As an example, I teach a nonprofit marketing course that deals with the challenges of using corporate models to effect social change. By allowing students to participate in the actual strategy development and tactics execution, I can reinforce the classroom learning and perhaps awaken a career desire in a select few.”

This year, McGrann says, two more departments hope to be involved in the project: kinesiology and English. This summer, the kinesiology department will do a pilot course by sending a few of their students and a faculty member to research the researchers – that is, the students will measure how backpacking through the wilderness is affecting their peers’ physiology as the project progresses.

The English department also hopes to do a similar project, where one or two students will travel for at least part of the journey to report on the experience through blogging and other articles. Portia Hopkins, chair of the English department, has been involved in the collaboration on the project from the beginning, and while she has yet to have any students participate in the project, she remains excited by the opportunity and encourages her students to get involved.

“For students coming from the science background and students coming from the writing background, for them to be able to share and experience this with each other to find the value in the work the other does is … something new that hasn’t – as far as I know – been done in this fashion before,” she says. “For the students who get to be the first generation of doing something like this and who get to set the way for those that come along – it could really be a life-enhancing and exciting opportunity.”

“For the students who get to be the first generation of doing something like this and who get to set the way for those that come along – it could really be a life-enhancing and exciting opportunity.”
Portia Hopkins

All of the faculty involved in this project credit William Jessup’s small size and collegial nature with allowing them to develop such a broad, complex, and collaborative initiative. “I could go to a large research university like UC Davis, but it would be hard to build something like this [there],” McGrann says. “Here [at William Jessup], it’s easier to have conversations and to share and pool resources across departments to build programs like this. That’s what I love about here – everybody is so supportive, from the administration to the faculty, of collaboration and interdisciplinary work.”

Beyond a Single Campus

The Megatransect Project’s spirit of collaboration extends not just across departments on William Jessup’s California campus, but to CCCU campuses from New York and Kentucky as well.

Aaron Sullivan is an associate professor and chair of the biology department at Houghton College in Houghton, New York; Ben Brammell is an associate professor in the department of natural sciences at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. They first connected to the Megatransect Project when McGrann was looking for partners at other CCCU institutions in order to apply for one of the CCCU’s Networking Grants, which provides funding for projects that involve scholars from multiple universities.

Sullivan, who has studied the behavior of amphibians and reptiles throughout his career, had been looking for an opportunity to engage in more applied areas of research such as conservation or biodiversity. Though the Megatransect Project originally monitored bird populations (McGrann’s particular research interest), Sullivan suggested the team develop protocols that would extend the project to include amphibians and reptiles.

Ramon Guivas (center), a student from Asbury University, and Faith Trowbridge, a student from William Jessup University, hike in the Castle Crags Wilderness on the 2016 trip.
(Photo: Courtesy of Michael McGrann)

As a result, Sullivan and two of his students went into the field with the rest of the team in the summer of 2016 to assist in the collection of the avian data and to test a new method of collecting data on amphibians and reptiles.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the project to me is the opportunity to learn. This approach to large-scale, long-term field ecology is a new approach for me,” Sullivan says. “I had a great time learning about vegetation and habitat alongside the students.”

Erica Barney was one of the Houghton students to work on the project last summer. Though she had never been backpacking before – let alone for a time as long as what the project would entail – Barney’s interest in environmental biology, the natural world, and conservation efforts compelled her to tackle the unique experience.

Beyond the challenges of conducting such extensive field research, as well as identifying flora and fauna in California instead of in her home state of New York, Barney says that challenges unique to the experience reminded her of both the beauty of God’s creation and the power of his provision. “One thing that I enjoyed the most was the simple, yet sometimes emotionally tasking action of finding and pumping water, which often came from really small streams,” she says. “In those moments, it was so visible that God was providing for us. … As you’re hiking all day, you have a lot of time to think, pray, and reflect on your blessings and relationships – that was a very meaningful experience through this project.”

Barney says that the program’s intentional inclusion of time to read Scripture and journal in the evenings after each day of hiking was helpful, because it gave an opportunity to see how her faith could interact with her work as a conservationist and scientist, as well as allowed her to spend time with faculty and students from other Christian campuses to discuss “what we heard God speaking to us while we were backpacking.”

Barney plans to go back to California this summer to participate in the next round of the project. “[The Megatransect Project] challenged me to view the work I was doing as something for the greater good – to hopefully provide long-term data showing the effects of climate change, which in the future could promote conservation programs for God’s creation.”

At Asbury University, Brammell, too, had research experience studying amphibians. He, however, was immediately interested in joining the Megatransect Project because of his experience in a different research technique: environmental DNA analysis. In this kind of analysis, scientists collect samples of water or soil and analyze them to determine whether DNA from animals that are elusive or endangered is present in the sample. If it is, that indicates the animal has recently been in the area and can provide scientists with a better idea of where the wildlife might be.

The Megatransect team used environmental DNA analysis to track populations of the endangered Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog.
(Photo: Courtesy of Michael McGrann)

As part of the Megatransect Project, Brammell was able to utilize this technique to research whether a particular – and endangered – species of frog was present in the terrain where the team was conducting its research. He went on the research project in 2015, while one of his students, Ramon Guivas, went in 2016 to search for signs of a different frog. An added challenge for them was trying to do some analysis of the samples directly in the field, Brammell says.

“The nature of this work is really sensitive,” he says. “Most people are filtering samples in a highly controlled environment – but we had to try and do this in a remote field location, something that to my knowledge had not been attempted at that point.”

Additionally, the samples Brammell and Guivas collected over the last two years have provided excellent training opportunities for other biology students back on Asbury’s campus – including looking at the unique and complex genome of the elusive frog species.

“To me, the genome is among the most fascinating and complex aspect of things we’re researching – it clearly explains how God created things and how they came to be,” Brammell says. “This project is also exciting because some of these sequences we’re looking at – our students might be the first to look at them in the world.”

Guivas said that the experience also taught him much about the process of scientific research that he hadn’t previously considered. “I am now more aware that beyond the calculated steps of research, there is a human element, and each day is an opportunity to foster the growth of another while working on your own understanding,” he says.

Making an Impact

Given the relative youth of the Megatransect Project’s existence at William Jessup University, it already encompasses significant scope and impact. But McGrann and his colleagues want to see it grow even further.

“My long-term vision – which is really ambitious – is to complete research surveys along the entire length of the PCT from Mexico to Canada in a single season, using teams of undergraduate students and faculty team leaders,” McGrann says. “I want this to be an honors program, where students are engaged in the analysis, in figuring out the logistics, and in the publication of the results.”

McGrann says he wants it to continue being a collaborative project – something that his colleagues at William Jessup, at Houghton, and at Asbury support wholeheartedly.

“Maintaining a research program at a small Christian liberal arts college can be difficult due to limitations of time and funding, so I have tended to focus on smaller, bite-sized projects that can be accomplished over several weeks, instead of months or years,” says Houghton’s Aaron Sullivan. “This [project] has shown me firsthand what can be done via collaboration … to make a huge project like this a reality.”

In addition to helping his own research, Ben Brammell says that an expanded Megatransect Project will be a great asset for his students at Asbury University. “I would love to see a more permanent program emerge, in which we have this as a constant component for both of our departments [at William Jessup and at Asbury],” he says. “We require research internships for our seniors, so this would be a great resource for that.”

McGrann says that he firmly believes this project is one uniquely suited for faculty and students who are part of Christian higher education. “There are not enough believers in the environmental sciences,” he says. “We have a unique motivation as Christian to promote the care for and stewardship of God’s resources. [Creation] is a gift that has been entrusted to us to steward and promote and preserve for future generations. My hope is that this program becomes a catalyst for getting Christians plugged into doing conservation science and ecological research in the long term – because I think there’s a need for believers to be there.”

Morgan C. Feddes is the communications specialist for the CCCU and editor of Advance magazine.

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