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Alexia CivitAlexia Civit is a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Studies and Music with a minor in urban planning. She currently interns with the North Carolina Collaboratory as an Environmental Policy Intern. 

After half a semester’s worth of hard work, I’d finally arrived at Spring Break– the treasured time where Carolina undergrads get to drive 10 hours to Florida, go home, pick up a book, or, in my case, jolt awake to the sound of a 6:00 a.m. alarm…

But what may appear to be potential sleep deprivation was actually an incredible opportunity to partake in scientific research in a field I’ve come to love, and in which I hope to continue to work throughout my career.

Over spring break I had the opportunity to partner with the Carolina Drone Lab (CARDNL) as part of Susan Cohen and Troy Walton’s project studying marsh erosion and conditions in the Currituck Sound. This multi-year project has investigated many elements of the Sound including monitoring and mapping shoreline erosion, tracing submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), and identifying vegetation type and health (while discovering some invasive nutria tracks along the way). Their research involves partnerships with the North Carolina Collaboratory, Elizabeth City State University, and the Audubon of North Carolina.

… The 6:00 a.m. alarm begins to buzz. The sun has just begun to peak out from over the horizon as I rush to get dressed in my triple layers and lather up the sunscreen. It’s our first day of field work. Over a cup of oatmeal, the team and I briefly talk through checklists, and then it’s time to go. Despite the early bird wake-up, being on the boat first thing in the morning is invigorating. While at the Outer Banks, I was able to participate in hands-on research as I never had before. Not only did this grow my scientific skill set, but it also greatly deepened my understanding of what it means to be a part of a large, collaborative environmental project. I was able to grow my experience in many types of data collection: from flying my first Anafi drone, ground truthing with the Emlid RTK, and collecting qualitative observations from locals, to further developing my surveying skills. Having the opportunity to participate in field-based data collection showed me the value of remote sensing, especially in an environment like the marsh, and has inspired me to pursue more classes in the subject while at UNC.

Civit in the field.

In addition to furthering my capabilities in data collection and analysis, I also developed a greater understanding of the importance of ground truthing and narrative as a part of the research process. As Dr. Cohen is quick to explain, it’s our work on the ground that provides meaning to the remotely sensed data we collect. We intentionally dedicated time to simply exploring and observing the marsh, having conversations about what we were seeing and connecting it to our previous research. Wading through chest-high mud in an attempt to collect precise elevation transects was also a perfect opportunity for me to reflect on the value of the technological-human partnership (while also having tons of fun. I mean, who doesn’t love waders?!)

But being out in the field isn’t just necessary (and exciting), it can also be crucial to how we communicate our research with the outside world. Over this trip I grew to understand how the imagery we collect can be valuable for not only scientific purposes, but also for our local communities. Sharing our imagery with local fishermen and homeowners provided a point of connection by which we all left the conversation more educated. Storytelling can facilitate interactions between stakeholders that provide insight and broaden perspectives on environmental issues.

Setting up a drone.

I am grateful to the NC Collaboratory and the Carolina Drone Lab for the opportunity to partake in this phenomenal research experience. Through it, I’ve grown as a scientist, researcher, team member and communicator. While my experiences on this trip further impressed the gravity of the climate crisis and the challenges that lay ahead, I nonetheless can’t help but feel empowered by the passionate and resilient scientists and community members I met and had the privilege to work alongside. It is my goal to continue to learn as much as I can during my time at Carolina so that one day I, too, can join the fight against climate change and towards a better world.

Civit in the marsh.

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