Mammoth Lessons

Shawntaye Hopkins

Doug Foster’s Tuesday, Thursday and Friday class from noon to 5 p.m. has no desks or lectures.

Instead, stalactites hang from the ceilings as water drips to the cool, damp surface.

Foster is one of many Western students spending part of their week working, interning or volunteering at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Hiring students is less expensive than hiring a full staff with full benefits, said Steve Thomas, long-term ecological monitoring program coordinator.

Although different students are in constant need of training, Thomas said it’s worth being able to offer hands-on experience to students doing research beneficial to the cave.

Foster, an intern, began working for Mammoth Cave this semester. He spends his time traveling through the cave assisting invertebrate ecologist Kurt Helf analyzing the long-term effects of organisms on the cave.

“I like being able to get out, not be in a building, and participating in research that matters and seeing the animals, whether big or small, in their environment,” Foster said. “It intrigues me.”

Phillip Myers, executive director of the WKU Research Foundation and director of the the Office of Sponsored Programs, said internship salaries vary, depending on the nature of the project.

In a cooperative agreement, half of an intern’s salary is paid by Mammoth Cave and the other half by Western.

Myers said interns come primarily from the Ogden College of Science and Engineering, but all students are welcome.

Associate professor Kate Webb said the first Western intern was hired at Mammoth Cave in spring 2002 after she discovered the park was looking for student help in their water quality lab.

Unlike the interns, Greenville junior Lynnsie Bowles works nine hours a week but never gets a paycheck. She receives three biology credit hours instead.

“I took a choice between getting paid and getting research credit, and I’d rather graduate in four years than have money,” Bowles said.

Bowles is required to write about her experience at the end of the semester.

“I’ve been to Mammoth Cave lots of times,” Bowles said. “I didn’t know there was anything to Mammoth Cave besides the cave, but there’s a whole lot more that goes on.”

Bowles recently finished ordering plants in preparation for an ozone garden. Characteristics of the plants in this garden will help tell the quality of the ozone.

On a particular Thursday, Bowles hiked through the forest at the park with botanist Michele Webber to assist Webber in setting up for her thesis on detecting an association between herbaceous, under-story species and soil parameters.

Webber, a Western graduate student, participates in SCEP, the Student Career Employment Program leading to full-time employment.

Another program, the Student Temporary Employment Program, or STEP, offers part-time employment to students. STEP offers employment to students as tour guides or ticket sellers during the summer or on the weekends for a period of up to six months.

Mary Conner, administrative officer for Mammoth Cave, said STEP is recruiting students this summer and anyone interested should contact Mammoth Cave. The salary ranges from $9.50 to $11.00 an hour.

Hart County freshman Jonathan Talley participates in the STEP program as an information receptionist.

Although he is not doing research, he said there is fulfillment in being able to help visitors enjoy their trip to the cave and encouraging them to come back.

What the research students have done has proven to be very helpful, Thomas said.

He said last year a student studied Eggert’s sunflower, a plant federally listed as threatened. Thomas said the research provided extended knowledge of the plant and gave greater understanding in determining how the plant should be moved.

Students aren’t the only ones taking advantage of research opportunities at Mammoth Cave. Myers said there are 38 different research projects involving both students and professors.

Many of the students at Mammoth Cave show enthusiasm in their work and can’t wait to return the next day.

“When I leave on Tuesday, I want to come back on Wednesday,” Foster said. “And I don’t work on Wednesdays.”

Reach Shawntaye Hopkins at [email protected]