Melissa Harkavy finds passion in fieldwork

Melissa Harkavy plans to be in Tanzania this summer.

A geography undergraduate, she’s eyeing the Parks and People program through the department of landscape architecture and hopes to broaden her experiences in developing countries. She had an interview in January that was part of the application process.

“I was answering questions, and the professor asked me, ‘Are you interested in research?’ He said, ‘You talk like a researcher,’” she says.

That exchange that helped Harkavy realize how two experiences, a biogeography internship in Northern California and a semester in South Africa through the geography department’s Parks and People program, changed her. She became a researcher.

“I feel confident that I can have a conversation with a physical scientist and a social scientist,” said Harkavy, who will graduate in the summer with a Bachelor of Science in geography and minors in African studies; environmental inquiry; climatology; and science, society and the environment of Africa. “I just don’t think in black and white anymore.”

Equally as important, she found that the field research she did in both experiences appealed to her. In Northern California, she collected data on trees in various forests to determine how susceptible to fire they are. In South Africa, she researched mussel extraction in a nature reserve.

Harkavy says she enjoys how fieldwork contextualizes what she reads and learns about in class.

“It is one thing to discuss African gender dynamics in class,” she says. “It is another thing to live it. You start to see multiple sides and your biases come to light. From there you can grow, observe, and experience. I look at the world so differently now.”The biogeography internship was a chance to delve deeper into physical geography and the Parks and People experience was a look at the human geography and nature/society subfields.

“I want try out every form of geography I can that I’m interested in,” says Harkavy, whose degree is in the physical/environmental option. “My interests are very broad. I’m trying to narrow down what I want to do.”

The first experience was Parks and People in the spring semester of 2010 in the Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve on the eastern cape of South Africa.

Harkavy’s motivation for pursuing that program was two-part: An Africa studies class on gender dynamics fascinated her. She was also looking for an opportunity to combine social and physical systems, something she hadn’t been able to do in her previous class.

“I kept thinking in these classes, how does this apply to geography and human-environment systems, and how can I apply this knowledge that I’m interested in to science?” she says.

The Parks and People program put those concepts together and allowed her to see how they’d interact.

For her final research project, she looked at the extraction of black mussels in Dwesa-Cwebe, a marine-protected area. She and her team read numerous studies on the subject, but the studies didn’t take into consideration that people extracted mussels in marine-protected areas, which is what Harkavy and her collaborators found to be happening.

“They looked at the behavior of collection and effects of collection and sustainability and possibilities of sustainability,” she says. “We found that when they were comparing a marine-protected area and not one, there was never consideration for the fact that there was harvesting. Which there was.”

Harkavy says her project proposes a study be done that takes into account that extraction of mussels in a marine-protected area is taking place. Harkavy says her team knew it was happening because they observed it and they talked about it with the locals.

Among the team’s other findings were that locals used the shells to decorate the roofs of their homes, but they live near the shoreline where the mussels are extracted. They also found that communities farther away from the shoreline did not decorate their homes with shells but instead used pieces of plastic buckets.

One of the issues Harkavy and her team encountered dealt with conservation vs. ecology: The mussels represent the main source of protein for this community, so people need to extract them.

But the mussels need to be protected to grow large enough to supply a large portion of the Eastern Cape.

“Is it possible for there to be a happy medium?” she says. “Are there ways we can adapt or transform?”

Harkavy’s proposal concludes that the current rates of mussel harvesting are unsustainable, and it calls for that study that takes into account that mussels are being extracted in a marine-protected area.

Harkavy’s other field experience last year, the biogeography internship, lasted for seven weeks in Sugar Pine Point State Park near Lake Tahoe, Calif. She was one of several undergraduates collecting data for various projects related to old-growth forests in that area.

Primarily, Harkavy worked with master’s candidate Anna Vandervlugt collecting tree data for her thesis, “Comparing changes in forest structure and fire behavior between contemporary and reconstructed forests in the Lake Tahoe basin.” Vandervlugt is researching old-growth forests and how human settlements in the 1800s changed the landscape. Vandervlugt used the data that were collected to enter in a computer-based forest-fire modeling application.

Vandervlugt says only 5 percent of the original forest remains, and those trees – tall pines -- are as much as 500 years old. The trees that have grown since human settlement are predominantly red and white firs.

Harkavy’s contributions included taking measurements of the trees’ diameter, height, and the height at which live and dead branches could be found.

She also helped classify the sizes of dead branches on the ground to determine the fuel lode of the particular plots. Small dead twigs meant less fuel for a forest fire. Big logs meant more.
Vandervlugt says she enjoyed working with Harkavy.

“The internship is a great opportunity for undergrads to get some field research in biogeography, and Melissa was a really dedicated and hard worker,” Vandervlugt says.

For Harkavy, the internship has made her able to see patterns in areas that have experienced a forest fire. And, she says the internship has given her an appreciation of the processes taking place in a forest.

After Harkavy graduates in the summer, she sees herself going to grad school to study geography, and she hopes to find a program with strong African ties.

She’s also planning for a long-term investment in Africa. If she’s able to do the Parks and People program in Tanzania, she wants to stay on when it’s over to learn Swahili and, of course, do more fieldwork.