Inception of a Project: inside the thought process

There are certain freedoms that come with being a citizen scientist. I find that doing research for research sake (not because of any career obligation) is an excellent way to challenge and/or reinforce what is taken as fact. Every once in a while, I get the question “how do you choose what projects you take on?” In reality, most of them fall into our laps here at BCA. When constructing a scientific paper it is important to have a question to answer. You form a hypothesis, research your subject and construct procedures to run your project. This gives you a clear basis. It will guide what data you collect in the search for answers. In academia, this is the norm.

My favorite projects are open-ended: breaking conformity to structured projects in the beginning. Gravitating toward certain questions is a natural part of the human psyche when observing the world around us. More often than not, the first questions are “why” and “how.” These simple questions eventually snowball into full blown projects if you stick with something long enough. One of the simplest examples of these questions came recently as I was observing an Inca Dove that I assumed laid an egg in her recently completed nest on my back porch.

It started with a fascination intertwined with the enjoyment of being in the moment; watching this marvel of the natural world perched atop my scope. Akin to the universe handing me a serving of joy on a silver platter. For the next 24 hours off and on, I never once saw the female leave the nest. The question was: why? Well, the need to incubate the egg is a fairly easy answer to that question. Immediately following came the how. How was she sitting there for so long without eating? It turns out that I was missing something. With a focus of self to the last statement, I began to contemplate the how. This is where most folks would say, “Google it!” While this is certainly possible for most things, it lacks the opportunity for discovery. Now read that last part again.

Observation is our most powerful tool in understanding any given thing. With that in mind, observations continued until my eureka moment came into existence. It began with the female calling on the nest. Shortly thereafter, the male flew into view landing on the rim. The female stood and her place was taken by the male as she left. Inca Doves incubate in shifts. One incubates while the other is off feeding until the next shift change. Harking back to the “Google it” comment, yes, I did some research afterward and found exact records of what I had just witnessed. However, I offer this, what if my discovery did not conform to the existing literature? What if I had just read a couple of papers accepting it as fact thus derailing my train of discovery?

I propose that patience and discovery for one’s own self interest are two of the most important parts of being a scientist. More evidence to my point, the snowball effect of compounding questions can lead you down a rabbit hole of never ending questions. I personally like to have an open mind and look at a question or problem from every angle I can think of. This is sometimes easier said than done mind you. However, the rewards of compounding questions can be quite fulfilling leading to a lifetime of intrigue.

As for BCA projects, they often start with the ever alluring need for discovery or confirmation of observations. Not all of our projects start with us. In the case of our Southeastern Purple Martin Project, it all started with a message from Brad Biddle (a long time martin landlord). His simple questions: where are they migrating to and which ones come back? These questions have blossomed into our largest project to date covering three states and four colonies. For banders like us, we have to have questions to answer as justification to a project's worth in the grand picture of the science world. However, the inception of a project always stems from innate human wonder.

In closing, to any aspiring scientists (young or old) that happen upon this post, I encourage you to enjoy the process of discovery for one’s own self. Seek knowledge. Observe before researching. If you find happiness in the “why” grab hold and run with it. You never know what you may find.

-Kyle Shepard