Day in the Life of A Reserve Scientist

Jul 26, 2023

Excerpted with gratitude from an article by Jillian Daly, communications specialist at the North Carolina Reserve. You can read the whole story here. Stay tuned for part 2 coming out here.

Byron Toothman did not expect to work for the North Carolina Reserve as a research biologist for this long. “I’m 16 years in, and I didn’t know I could love a job this much,” he says. What does Byron do? Early one Thursday morning, I left the Reserve’s headquarters in Beaufort and headed to our office at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science to find out. 

Byron told me to get there by 9:30 am. By 10:00, he had gotten us, the 19-foot boat, and all the equipment we needed on the water—all while holding a mug of coffee. He didn’t spill a drop. Due to a couple of years of the pandemic and isolation, Byron has gotten this solo routine down to a tee.

“The typical day can be pretty untypical, but the bulk of my job is to make sure that the System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) is running smoothly,” he said. “SWMP is the environmental monitoring that we do here—water quality, weather, biological monitoring, and evaluating vegetation trends.”

The passion in his voice was tangible. I couldn’t wait to see the work in action and to learn more about SWMP. Every Reserve participates in this program. They collect nutrient, weather, and water quality data every 15 minutes, 24/7, make this information publicly available, and analyze it and ensure its quality. 

“I try to encourage people to cite their research so more people can take advantage of our monitoring data,” Byron explained. “We offer a large, relatively comprehensive dataset that is useful across timescales and we don’t want people to spend their hard-earned grant dollars trying to replicate things we’ve already spent a lot of time and effort on.” 

Our first stop is Research Creek in the Masonboro Island Reserve. We pulled up to a wooden stand in the marsh, one of the SWMP telemetry stations that automatically and wirelessly transmits the data collected in this remote location for a little Disco time [named to honor the ISCO autosampler and a colleague’s love of disco].

On this trip we were replacing the sondes at each station, which is a monthly task for Byron. Each sonde connects to the telemetry station on the wooden stand, which sends data up to a satellite every 15 minutes. Byron noted, “It never gets old that we are collecting data in the water now, and within the hour, I can look at it on my phone.” (It is pretty awesome.)

When Byron finds the autosampler is running smoothly, we untie from the platform and head out to find our co-worker, Elizabeth Pinnix, the southern sites manager for the Reserve. She is going to join us for the rest of the day and help give me a tour of the Masonboro Island site. 

Hopping off the boat into one of the many dredge spoil islands that line the Intracoastal Waterway, my guides immediately start pointing out flora and fauna and quizzing me on the tracks I see—otters! Apparently, they push together debris to make their bathrooms! Byron introduces me to sea lavender Flowers (Limonium carolinianum) and pickleweed (Salicornia virginica). We explore this patch of land a bit more until we’re ready to hop back on the boat.

Next, we zoom off to the east. The tide is high, so Byron can maneuver the boat through the shallow creek. We disembark at Masonboro Island and wander across the dune to a pristine, untouched stretch of beach. We are the only people as far as the eye can see. As we walk, Byron points out peat patches that disclose the island’s history. Where we are standing used to be marsh, but the nature of barrier islands is that they retreat inland. The peat, which is an old marsh, is evidence of this. 

I swerve my head towards the dune when Elizabeth calls out. She’s identifying bird tracks. Since it is shorebird nesting season, she has been out on the Reserve the past few days posting bird nesting signs to deter Reserve visitors from disturbing the nests.

We turn back to go to the boat, and I’m surprised to see how quickly the tide is going out. The boat is the tiniest bit stuck. Byron and Elizabeth push it around in the water, eager to get out before we can no longer escape the marsh and the tide. Byron’s confidence is apparent as he steers around tight turns in the marsh. I watch fish dart away and humble, graceful egrets lift up and out of the marsh. 

After such a beautiful day on the water, I’m thrilled to get back out tomorrow to finish the monthly SWMP field duties! 

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ReservesNorth Carolina, North CarolinaDay in the Life of A Reserve Scientist