A busy week, to say the least

Tensions running high, sleeplessness, putting in lots of hard work in and outside of class— seems like a typical November for UNC students. This week, we really began to feel the effects of the semester winding down, and as temperatures drop and time seems to speed up, let’s take a look back at all we accomplished this week.

On Monday, we headed to Internships as usual, with many Seniors registering for classes and Juniors registering later on Wednesday. 

On Tuesday, after regular classes (Environmental Economics and Sustainable Coastal Management) in the morning, we had a visit from Dr. Lora Harris, self-proclaimed “carpet bagger” and “septic detector” coming to us from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. With Dr. Harris’ guidance, we spent a day and a half working on modeling and manipulating data. This first day was spent getting to know one another by participating in a trust-building exercise and to begin our thinking about how models are conceptualized. 

When Wednesday rolled around, we continued to work with Dr. Harris to create model inputs and examine how this changed the outputs. This modeling experience and the data produced will hopefully be a useful tool for our Capstone’s data analysis portion. That evening, we attended the Science on the Sound lecture, where Dr. Harris went more in depth about her projects in the Potomac River working with nitrogen measurements and relating these findings to septic systems.

Dr. Lora Harris, discussing her research at the Science on the Sound lecture series.


Rather than having Environmental Economics in the morning on Thursday, we took a trip down to a residential property in Nags Head to watch a septic field inspection done by Todd Krafft, environmental planner and septic health authority for the Town. Upon arriving in the resident’s backyard, Todd had already cleared away some earth from the less-dirty of two access points of the septic field. After removing the concrete covering, we were greeted by the all-too-characteristic, unpleasant odor associated with septic tanks and their failure. Todd explained mechanisms of filtration for these tanks, discussing the various ways that tanks can become functionally impaired and how to mitigate these problems.

Todd Krafft, pulling out the filter from a failed septic tank.

We proceeded with the rest of the day, including regularly scheduled Coastal Management class and Ecology class. That evening, we each got to present about our internships to each other and also to some members of the CAB and representatives from internships. Hearing about everyone’s internships was a great way to get updated on what everyone has been up to this semester—we’ve all accomplished some pretty neat things (that can be read about in more detail in the coming internship blog posts)!

We attended our final ecology class on Friday morning (how has the semester already flown by?!) and then we used the rest of the day to work on the Human Dimensions portion of our capstone. We working on creating a unified codebook for our coding process, coming up with a succinct list that can be used to analyze our interview transcripts.

With five weeks left here on this beautiful little sandbar we call home, here’s to soaking up all that’s left to learn and to creating a capstone project that reflects all our hard work!

-Emma Josephine Karlok, OBXFS’18

The Nature Conservancy: Stewarding The Swamp

Harris Kopp


When I arrived to the Nature Conservancy branch office in Nags Head Woods for my first internship day I wasn’t sure what to expect – I had spoken to students from previous years about what my duties might be and who I would be working with, and I’d even already met my mentor Aaron McCall during our two weeks of orientation. Even so, I felt like a small cog in the large ambiguous machine of ‘conservation work’ until I walked into the office and looked around.


Immediately I was struck by both how physically small it was and how comfortable everyone was with each other. The main building was simply a front desk facing a small lobby with five offices in the back, but as I was coming in everyone was exchanging friendly banter and the atmosphere was light. It was refreshing to be able to work in such a relaxed yet professional environment – it reminded me of being out in a lab for a class back in Chapel Hill.

Over my months at The Nature Conservancy I worked with Aaron to maintain the trails crisscrossing the woods, manage the invasive species in the area, and keep the preserve accessible to people without robbing it of the ‘wild’ quality that draws so many nature-lovers. My favorite assignment was trail maintenance where I would go out and survey the trails and ensure that anyone who used them would be able to find their way even if they weren’t normally comfortable being in the woods.

The above picture is from my favorite trail – Sweetgum Swamp – and exemplifies everything that I loved about the trails in the Nags Head Woods. There’s abundant natural beauty, but at the same time the varied topography keeps the hike interesting as over the course of a few hundred feet there will be a mix of ridge-line, forested paths, and low swamps. I’m extremely grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time in those woods, since they both remind me of the forests of the Appalachian Mountains while being distinct enough to be new and memorable.

The other main type of work I was involved in during my internship was controlling the invasive species that are found throughout the preserve. While my first two internship days were spent spraying herbicides on small fern-like invasive plants, the one that sticks in my mind the most is the Elaeagnus angustifolia, or Russian Olive, and by far the most memorable thing about that plant is its natural defenses.


I spent several days digging Russian Olive out of the ground and cutting it up, which gave me more than enough time to become intimately familiar with its surprisingly sharp thorns. While handling the plant could quickly turn painful if I was careless, it was always cathartic to sever the last remaining root and pull it out of the ground – rarely in my time as an Environmental Studies major have I experienced such a crossing-over of conservation work and stress relief.

To any future students or citizens interested in conservation and stewardship work, I would highly recommend volunteering for the Nature Conservancy to get an idea of what the field is like. It’s a remarkable feeling to be able to be a part of protecting such a unique and beautiful area, and my time spent in the Nags Head Woods has only strengthened my commitment to the stewardship of our worlds undeveloped places.

Perception is Reality

The end of the semester – and finals – is ticking ever closer and the pressure of our Capstone project is always in the background wherever I go, like a tense knot in the back of my shoulders. Outside of the classroom a dozen different worries flit through my mind – election season, grades, research, friends and family. At times it can feel overwhelming, like the world has shrunk to just the next assignment – crowding out everything else. During my internship time at the Nature Conservancy I asked myself “Why do I do it? Is it worth it?”, and just as I was trying to fabricate some profound answer I simply stopped my work and opened my eyes.

I was dumbstruck by the display of natural beauty that I had been blind to moments before. Suddenly I was reminded of why I had chosen to study how to be a better steward to the natural world, and I felt with a reinforced surety that such wild places were worth fighting for. Everywhere I turned my eyes were met with new wonders – trails in need of raking transformed into mysterious paths dappled with sunlight and swallowed by lush foliage under an iceberg-blue sky.

Just as my perspective on my surroundings began to shift, so too did my feelings towards our Capstone research project. Since I’ve arrived at this field site I’ve met some of the brightest and most positive minds I’ve ever encountered in my life, and instead of stressing over the Capstone breaking us apart I realized that it can be the force that binds us together. The shared responsibility that can take us from just a group of undergrad students to being a step closer to true scientists, and creating something we can be proud of in the process.

An important step in that process is learning how stewardship of the natural world interacts with policy and regulation – we were lucky enough to meet with surveyors from the NC Division of Marine Fisheries who explained what it was like to interact with anglers that knew the data they were giving could be used to craft policies. We also observed one of the more scientific sides of marine data collection when we witnessed the harvesting of several fishes otoliths – small calciferous structures that can be used to age the fish – although the fish were frozen, so the extraction was a bit less precise dissection and a bit more sawing and prying.

The path to conservation takes many forms – not all of them are sunlit glades or tranquil swamps.


Quickly afterward our perspectives shifted from the regulators’ side to the regulated as we went on a tour of O’Neals Fish House and saw fish weighed first-hand. Lastly we visited a fishing net supplier, and quickly learned that there are no shortcuts to quality and that the last few weavers are still around because they’re very, very good at what they do. During our time there we witnessed the proper weaving technique, and even got to put it into practice.




Suffice to say that some students took to it immediately, while others were less clear on the finer points of the craft.

Through it all I could feel that although the bonds we had formed at the beginning of the semester were no longer the same, they were far from broken. We even had it in us to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, and the pressure from our Capstone and academics made the night of levity that much more meaningful.