Get to know a scientist: Samuel Harbol

Thu., Jan. 20, 2022

This week we learn more about Samuel Harbol, this year’s Norweb Fellow working in Dr. Juliana Medeiros’ lab. This one-year research fellowship is named in honor of R. Henry Norweb Jr., the first executive director of Holden Arboretum and grandson of Holden’s founder Albert Fairchild Holden. The Fellowship gives those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree a chance to conduct cutting edge biological research with a Holden staff scientist, along with career counseling to help get them to the next step in their STEM career.

What is your role in the lab? What do you study?

We’re a plant physiology lab, which means we are interested in how a plant’s systems function, so what influences the plant’s growth and development and how the environment may influence this and other aspects of the plant’s life. We spend a lot of our time in the lab working with wacky machines and procedures to measure samples or living tissues of plants. For my Norweb Fellowship project I am studying the non-structural carbohydrate concentrations in eastern red cedar and rocky mountain juniper plants collected from around the US. Like all plants, these evergreen species make sugar through photosynthesis, and they use that sugar to grow, but they also store some of that sugar as starch. The sugars and starches are collectively called non-structural carbohydrates, and the balance of sugar to starch can tell you a lot about the stress-level of the plant. When plants are faced with drought and freezing conditions that prevent them from doing photosynthesis, they can use stored sugar as their food source, which gives them enough energy to survive the stressful conditions. We expect that plants that come from more stressful places will store more of their sugars, because they are anticipating stressful conditions, while plants from less stressful places will use up more of their sugars immediately for growth.

Previously, I was a student at Cleveland State University where I graduated with a master’s degree in Environmental Science this past August. There I studied forest management opportunities and my project focused on the Working Woods area here at Holden. For this project I spent most of my time in the field measuring the growth of trees and measuring the canopy structure and light conditions of the forest. 

What drew you to science?

I’ve always been interested in science ever since I can remember, biology and math courses were my favorite in all levels of school. I originally wanted to be a pharmacist but after my first semester of undergraduate work knew that it wasn’t for me. My undergraduate college created a sustainability minor my junior year that I was able to add onto my schedule and after focusing on more environmental science classes I knew if I was going to be in science it was going to be in this. After my undergraduate studies though I moved away from science in a broader sense partially because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had all these interests but couldn’t define them and I ended up working in a copy and print center for some 3ish years before realizing I wanted to come back to science.

I thought back to an Environmental Field Methods class in my undergraduate where we went on a trip to the Adirondacks and sampled plankton from a mountain top lake. After we went back to our cabin, we ended up having to make a test tube rack out of some spare cardboard. This trip was eye-opening, I felt like “Yes, I want to be doing this!” Revisiting this trip and my undergraduate experiences is where I realized that environmental science was where I really wanted to be, and I was inspired to go back for a Master’s.

What is something you wish more people knew about becoming/being a scientist?

It’s like anything else that you learn how to do. If you’ve ever taught yourself a new skill, like riding a skateboard, playing guitar, drawing, anything. There are going to be times when you’re just starting off that you’re not going to be good at it, but you have to keep working at it and develop those skills. It just takes time, good practice, and a passion.

What is something you love about science?

The Eureka moment. When you’ve been spending hours and hours reading material and then suddenly it clicks, and you start piecing together the puzzles you’ve been laying out for yourself. Or, when you are working with new software or hardware and for the past several days it has been like you’re looking at a piece of alien technology and then it works as it should and you can start collecting or processing data. That moment when everything clicks together is so rewarding.

What is something in science you think could be better?

Teaching could be better, there are plenty of people who could be good scientists if the classes were taught differently. I think science has some amazing teachers but also has some not so amazing teachers and some rather dated teaching methods. Science is exciting, and it should be taught as such. Using different teaching methods could provide alternatives to students who would make fantastic scientists if these methods were used. I think it’s obvious given our political and social climate that we don’t communicate science very well. I sympathize with science communicators because it is a difficult position, but I wonder what can be done differently. The public needs our information, science needs to be more accessible, to communicate better to their communities.

What are you most excited about in your field today (e.g., new frontiers, new efforts, new techniques, new people, etc.)?

I’m really excited about the amount of freeware and open-source software out there. I think in my master’s work I used maybe just one application that wouldn’t be considered under those terms. This type of software allows many more people to do science and makes it easier to share what you’ve done. I’m excited about these applications and what can be done with them.

What are 3 songs on your research playlist?

  • Kirby – Aesop Rock – Aesop Rock is my go-to on writing days. His use of words is inspiring and even though I’m not writing poetry it gets me in the mood to massage some paragraphs. Plus, this is a song about a cat.
  • Take the Journey – Molly Tuttle – A “let’s go” of songs.
  • Faster than Light – Unleash the Archers – An epic and fast song for when your morning coffee wasn’t enough to wake you up.

What is your favorite thing to do outside of your job as a scientist?

My fiancé and I really enjoy board games and often have a board game night, it gets pretty competitive. I also enjoy keeping a small garden and taking my dog on walks despite his need to stop and sniff every blade of grass. I’m also obsessed with anything sci-fi, be it movies, or books, and I’m currently working my way through an incomplete collection of the Dune series. I’m also always listening to music, be it new releases or a project I’ve never heard before.

What do you see as the next step in your career?

I think the obvious next step is a PhD program where I can continue developing my scientific research skills. I’m also interested in teaching and would like to ultimately be in a position where I can continue my research work but also act in a teaching or mentor role in either the undergraduate or graduate level. I don’t have specifics yet, but I have a much better idea of what I want to do.


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